Goldberg: Culture wars are a convenient distraction from spending
You know what you get for spending trillions of dollars you don’t have? More fights over Dr. Seuss, cancel culture and identity politics.
By any measure, the federal government has been on a spending spree for decades. Without getting bogged down in the green eyeshade stuff, suffice it to say Uncle Sam has been spending more than he takes in from tax revenues since the 1990s. We’ve made up those shortfalls by borrowing money. The national debt ($28 trillion) is now considerably larger than the GDP (about $21 trillion).
Reasonable people can differ on how much value we got for all that credit card debt. But that’s not relevant here.
What’s relevant is that when both parties reach a de facto bipartisan consensus that deficit spending is fine — at least when their party is doing the spending — it makes it difficult to argue about overspending or overborrowing in a credible way.
For instance, during what was supposed to be the debate period for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which spent plenty on non-pandemic Democratic priorities, the Republican National Committee was silent on it. The RNC did release two statements about it — but only after the bill passed. Yet plenty of Republicans found time to decry the “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss.
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For the record, Seuss wasn’t actually canceled. His estate announced that it wouldn’t continue to publish a handful of his least popular and allegedly racially insensitive works. In what he thought was an act of defiance to “cancel culture,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy staged a reading of “Green Eggs and Ham” — a book that wasn’t actually canceled. That showed those profligate Democrats!
We tend to define bipartisanship as both parties openly agreeing with each other in a gauzy spirit of civic cooperation. But there’s another kind of bipartisanship — when each party cynically and tacitly agrees to take turns doing things they denounce when the other party does them. That’s what the parties do on spending and debt (and Supreme Court nominations, gerrymandering and a host of other issues). The cumulative effect is a political culture that says you can do whatever you can get away with. Why should voters care about deficits when most politicians only claim to care about them when it’s the other party increasing them?
But here’s the catch. Political parties need to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Neither Republicans nor Democrats can run on the vow “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between us and the other party.” So what does that leave? Culture-war stuff.
This is not to say that cultural issues aren’t legitimate or important points of disagreement in a democracy. They often are. But if that’s all you’ve got to work with, you’re going to make as big a deal of that stuff as you can.
As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution recently noted on my podcast, The Remnant, this is precisely what’s happened in Western Europe. There’s a broad consensus among European political parties on spending and a generous welfare state. This doesn’t mean economic issues aren’t important to European voters. But the partisan fights are often over which state-dependent interest — government workers, unions, farmers, big business — should get more subsidies or protections. Meanwhile, cultural issues like European identity vs national identity and, especially, immigration become major sources of brand differentiation.
Indeed, immigration is a perfect example of what I’m getting at. It’s an important issue regardless of where you come down on the specifics of immigration policy. But there’s a reason that Republicans and Democrats often invest so much more in the issue than it warrants. It taps into, among other things, questions of race, national identity and the relationship between wealthy elites and average workers. Democrats love the issue because it lets them demonize Republicans — often but not always unfairly — as rank nativists and bigots. It lets Republicans rail about Democratic animosity toward the working class and indifference — real or alleged — to American culture.
Again, immigration is a legitimate issue to debate. But a lot of the culture-war trolling — and much of the immigration hysteria — that takes up so much of our energy and attention amounts to a convenient distraction from the fact that both parties have spent this country into a hole it will take decades to climb out of, if either of them ever bothers to try.