Generally speaking, we associate the quest for central government control to be very much a product of the extremes of left and right. But increasingly, the lobby for ever-greater concentration of power – both economically and politically – comes not from the fringes, but from established centers of both parties and media power.
Recently, for example, an article by Francis Fukuyama, a conservative-leaning intellectual, called for greater consolidation of federal power, most particularly, the Executive Branch. Ironically, Fukuyama's call for greater central power follows a line most often adopted by “progressive” Democrats, who seek to use federal power to enforce their views on a host of environmental, economic and social issues even on reluctant parts of the country.
This rush to concentrate powers in Washington seems odd, given the awful rollout of the Affordable Care Act, which seems almost like a parody of a government-managed big program, overly complex and almost impossible to implement. ACA has led even some honest liberals, like the New York Times Tom Edsall, to wonder if “the federal government is capable of managing the provision of a fundamental service through an extraordinarily complex system?”
To give the Left credit, many liberals would have preferred something less complex, perhaps like the single-payer system, that perhaps would be less amenable to confusion, and exemptions for privileged groups, like congressional staffs. But President Obama and his Democratic allies chose to work with many powerful interests, notably pharmaceutical companies and health insurers, who are in position to capitalize on this bizarre and, in many ways, inexplicably complicated, health care “reform.”
Other cautionary tales of overcentralization of federal power abound. Recent scandals like NSA eavesdropping and IRS political targeting, would have offended progressive defenders of civil liberties. However, with a favorite Democrat in the Oval Office, and conservatives the primary victims of abuse, their response has been far more muted than if, say, Mitt Romney was president.
Equally critically, many progressives also increasing favor a more centralized economy. With a few brave exceptions, notably Vermont's feisty socialist Sen. Bernard Sanders and incorrigibles such as Ralph Nader, there have been too-few voices willing to challenge the growing corporatization of the Democratic Party and the ongoing concentration of power in ever-fewer hands.
Historically, progressives made much about their objections to both government abuse and unrestrained corporate power. After all, progressives (as well as populists) pushed the earliest restraints on trusts and other large corporate combinations. But, now, the very people Theodore Roosevelt defined more than a century ago as the “malefactors of great wealth” have won powerful friends in the progressive camp.
Take, for instance the growing concentration of banking assets. Over the past 40 years, the asset share of the top five banks has grown from 17 percent to more than 50 percent of the total. This, however, is not enough for some progressive thinkers. Liberal pundits, like Matt Yglesias and Steve Rattner, in fact, think it would be better if we got rid of most smaller financial institutions.
Some of this is Washington-New York “we know best” elitism at its worst. These are the institutions and individuals that a studied corporatist and influence peddler like Rattnerwould identify with, naturally. Yglesias, for his part doesn't like small banks in part because they are run by “less-bright and not-as-good guys” as the benevolent geniuses on Wall Street, who almost cracked up the world economy.
This confluence of large government and big business can be seen in the flow of funds to the Center for American Progress, the Obama-friendly think tank whose head, John Podesta, was just named the president's latest chief of staff. The center's primary funders include a who's who of big corporations, including Apple, AT&T, Bank of America, BMW of North America, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Discovery, GE, Facebook, Google, Goldman Sachs, PepsiCo, PG&E, the Motion Picture Association of America, Samsung, Time Warner, T-Mobile, Toyota, Visa, Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo.
These donations reflect a growing lurch of bigger businesses toward the corporatist Democrats; this is particularly true in such fields as media, telecommunications, high technology and health care, where looming environmental and labor reforms are perceived as less a threat than among smaller firms.
Rise of regulators
Most worrisome, the increased focus on bigness has engendered growing support for what amounts to government by administrative diktat. As Fukuyama and others argue, our present messy system, particularly Congress, seems incapable of meeting challenges facing the country. This leads to a notion that we need a new “top down” solution through the exercise of greater executive power.
As is increasingly the case, any attempt to push back against centralization elicits a torrent of name-calling. Objecting to a more expansive federal government, suggests some, smacks of “neo-Confederate” ideology, a charge particularly loaded when the agglomeration of power in Washington is being led by our first African-American president.
These assaults mask a more dangerous reality: a dismissal of democracy and embrace of authoritarian solutions. Former Obama budget adviser Peter Orszag and the New York Times' Thomas Friedman have argued that power should shift from contentious, ideologically diverse elected bodies – subject to pressure from the lower orders – toward credentialed “experts” operating in Washington, Brussels or the United Nations. These worthies regard popular will as lacking in scientific judgment and societal wisdom.
There is no adequate political response to this dangerous tendency. Republicans talk about abuse of power, but, when in office, seem more than willing to indulge in it (with the run-up to the Iraq war and with the Patriot Act). Similarly, few Republicans seem to understand that economic concentration – favored by their remaining friends on Wall Street and the corporate community – tends inevitably to lead to the political variety.
So far, Republicans have been forced to choose between their own corporatists, who simply favor shifting government largesse to their favorite causes, such as defense or farm subsidies, and the Tea Party movement, whose members often oppose virtually any government initiative, for example, infrastructure improvement, even at the local level, something sure to limit their appeal to a wider electorate.
Yet the situation is far from hopeless. Obama's ineffective rule has done little to vouch for centralized government. Trust in governmental institutions – the White House, Congress, the courts – is at the lowest ebb in decades. The percentage of people who see the federal government as being too powerful, notes Gallup, has surged from barely 50 percent, when President Obama took power, to well over 60 percent today, the highest level ever recorded.
In such a climate, some thoughtful liberals, such as Yale's Jacob Hacker, suggest that progressives should avoid embracing an authoritarian, top-down ruling philosophy. “The Democrats have the presidency now,” he suggests, “[but] they won't hold it forever.” They are essentially “feeding a beast” that, at some date, may turn against them with a vengeance.
This suspicion of “top down” solutions also extends even to one of the most critical parts of the Democratic base: the millennial generation. Although they have been a core constituency for Barack Obama, they appear to be drifting somewhat away from their lock-step support, with the presidential approval level, according to a recent study by the Harvard Institute of Politics, now under 50 percent.
Much of the problem, notes generational chronicler Morley Winograd, lies with millennials' experience with government, which to them often seems clunky and ineffective. The experience with the ACA is not likely to enhance this view, Winograd suspects. “Millennials,” he notes, “have come to expect the speed and responsiveness from any organization they interact with that today's high tech makes possible. Government, on the other hand, is handcuffed by procurement rules and layers of decision-making, from deploying much of this technology to serve citizens. The result is experiences with government, from long lines at the DMV office to the botched website rollout for Obamacare, causes millennials to be suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, government bureaucracies.”
It may be here, in the meshing of technology and public purpose, that we may find a new focus that is neither reflexively hostile (as some Tea Partiers appear) to government per se or simply interested in expanding the list of self-interested political clients. The key to future effective government lies not so much in its radical downsizing as in dispersing power to the local level, something that fits both into the mentality of the new generation and the decentralist traditions that have animated our history.
This story originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
Barack Obama photo by Bigstock.