Editor's Note January/February 2011

Not Angry Enough

Stephen Voss

We are presenting, in our annual State of the Union issue, two very different faces of the Republican Party, which emerged from the midterm elections with new power but no particular plan yet for governing. The differences owe partly to the politicians’ respective perches—Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, as head of a legislative minority, can most easily play a blocking role, while Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, as a chief executive, has to lead. But our profiles suggest that the differences go a lot deeper than that.

Joshua Green shows McConnell to be a master of what’s becoming a familiar game—amassing power in Washington for its own sake by exaggerating ideological difference and not overly worrying, as Green drily puts it, “whether a party has any responsibility to address society’s problems in good faith.” Haley, on the other hand, seems to be something new. As Hanna Rosin writes, Haley represents an insurgent “Mommy” politics that is challenging her own party’s establishment and, for now anyway, leading the charge nationally for government reform.

Democrats’ failure to recognize—to share—the legitimate element of Tea Party anger at government helps explain their shellacking in the midterms. It’s an old problem. Trumped up though they are, accusations of Democratic “socialism” reflect the historic distinction between the parties. The party of Roosevelt believes government can and should be a force for good. The party of Reagan thinks that, apart from national defense, government mostly gets in the way.

In theory, no one should be angrier at wasteful, clumsy government than Democrats, since it undermines their political principles and appeal. In practice, since the 1960s, Democrats’ defensiveness about government, driven partly by fealty to public-service-employees unions, has turned them into the party of bureaucracy, rather than of effective government, just as Republicans’ fealty to incumbent interests has turned them into the party of Big Business rather than of free markets and innovation.

Voters get it. Most Americans except the very rich saw their incomes stagnate under George W. Bush, even as their expenses for health care and education shot up. But cheap credit and rising home prices—not to mention cool, affordable smart phones and flat-screen TVs—masked the dismal reality. That mask was ripped away by the Great Recession, and so Americans have been feeling 10 years’ worth of pain concentrated into a two-year span (and sharply summarized in our graphic on page 72). They’re scared. And so they voted for change when they elected Barack Obama, and they voted for change in the midterms, and it seems perfectly reasonable of them to keep right on voting for change until they believe they are actually getting it.

For their part, America’s members of the global elite are deciding that among their many luxuries is the freedom to vote with their feet. As Chrystia Freeland writes in our cover story, far from feeling any special obligation to help fix the government that gave them the chance to succeed, many new American oligarchs are claiming the moral high ground to righteously distance themselves from the country’s problems. “Screw you,” one Wall Street investor, without evident shame, recounted telling a lawmaker. “The government won’t get a single penny more from me in taxes.” He said he would put his money into his own foundation rather than “your deficit sinkhole.” It is, of course, his deficit sinkhole, too—his tax break in the face of two wars, his entitlement system, his defense budget, etc. Mine too, and yours.

It’s hard to ignore the short-term political rewards of McConnellism. But it’s also possible to see, in the support for candidates like Haley, in the continuing hope in Obama, and in the early enthusiasm for the bipartisan deficit-reduction panel, the outlines of something more powerful: a politics that would take the same approach to government that’s been taken to other institutions of American life in the past 20 years—radically rethinking it to bring means back into alignment with ends, and the ends themselves back into focus.

As a concrete example, we have also assembled a package of stories questioning basic assumptions about the American military. Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer, reckons with the economic and social costs of a national-security state that we have come to take as a given, while Gary Hart, for decades among the most determined of military reformers, calls for a strategy that looks ahead, rather than back to a conflict that ended 20 years ago. Tim Kane, a former Air Force officer, shows why the military is losing its most entrepreneurial leaders, and what to do about it. A nimble military—like effective government generally—would attract, not repel, able and ambitious Americans.

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James Bennet is the editor in chief and a co-president of The Atlantic. Prior to joining the magazine in 2006, he was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. More

"I wanted a profound and extreme talent who led quietly, was generous to others, and comported himself with collegial respect," remarked Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley when announcing his selection of James Bennet as the magazine's fourteenth editor in chief in early 2006. "On all scores, but surely these, I have conviction on James' appointment." Before joining the Atlantic staff, Bennet was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. During his three years in Israel, his coverage of the Middle East conflict was widely acclaimed for its balance and sensitivity. His much-lauded long-form writing for The New York Times Magazine was responsible for catching the eye of David Bradley during his year-long search for a new editor. Upon accepting the position, Bennet told a Times reporter that he saw the Atlantic job as "a chance to help, encourage and preserve the practice of serious, long-form journalism." Bennet is a graduate of Yale University who began his journalism career at The Washington Monthly. Prior to his work in Jerusalem, he served as the Times' White House correspondent and was preparing to join its Beijing bureau when he was offered the Atlantic editorship.

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