Americans Are Stuck With Inept Versions of Both Parties

The financial crisis, Obamacare, and disinterest in fixing dysfunction in the system

Wouldn't it be nice if Republicans were hellbent on reforming the financial sector and Democrats were determined to get bureaucrats operating with competence and efficiency? Saying so makes one sound like a starry-eyed dreamer. In our political system, people like Elizabeth Warren focus on fighting Wall Street pathologies, while the GOP highlights government incompetence.

Short-term incentives drive that behavior, but the opposite approach would make more sense in the long run. Republicans' ability to bring about the America they want depends on public confidence in capitalistic financial markets. The progressive project requires a competent public sector. 

I am hardly the first to notice this. Take a look at two passages, one about the financial crisis, the other about the Obamacare rollout. In the autumn of 2009, Luigi Zingales in National Affairs noticed that the financial crisis and its aftermath were bad news for supporters of free-market capitalism (emphasis added):

The economic crisis of the past year, centered as it has been in the financial sector that lies at the heart of American capitalism, is bound to leave some lasting marks. Financial regulation, the role of large banks, and the relationships between the government and key players in the market will never be the same.

More important, however, are the ways in which public attitudes about our system might change. The nature of the crisis, and of the government's response, now threaten to undermine the public's sense of the fairness, justice, and legitimacy of democratic capitalism. By allowing the conditions that made the crisis possible (particularly the concentration of power in a few large institutions), and by responding to the crisis as we have (especially with massive government bailouts of banks and large corporations), the United States today risks moving in the direction of European corporatism and the crony capitalism of more statist regimes. This, in turn, endangers America's unique brand of capitalism, which has thus far avoided becoming associated in the public mind with entrenched corruption, and has therefore kept this country relatively free of populist anti-capitalist sentiment.

And New Republic Editor Franklin Foer recently wrote of the Obamacare rollout:

Liberalism has spent the better part of the past century attempting to prove that it could competently and responsibly extend the state into new reaches of American life.

With the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the administration has badly injured that cause, confirming the worst slurs against the federal government. It has stifled bad news and fudged promises; it has failed to translate complex mechanisms of policy into plain English; it can’t even launch a damn website. What’s more, nobody responsible for the debacle has lost a job or suffered a demotion. Over time, the Affordable Care Act’s technical difficulties can be repaired. Reversing the initial impressions of government ineptitude won’t be so easy.

The obviousness of these insights, and the fact that they've been publicly aired many times, hasn't seemed to affect the behavior of the Republicans and Democrats who run things. A catastrophe as historic as the financial crisis may have persuaded George Will that America ought to break up the big investment banks. Franklin Foer may grasp that the Obamacare rollout does harm to the liberal project, just as Kevin Drum grasps that the staggering ineptitude behind California's joke of a high-speed-rail project gives liberals a bad name.

But ideological orthodoxies and interest-group capture prevent our political class from responding to even the most staggering failures in the way you'd hope. The country would be in fine shape if we were going back and forth between the best version of American conservatism and the best version of American liberalism. Instead we're bouncing back and forth between degraded versions of both.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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