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.