What the hell is happening to America’s political system? Is this just a bad year? Or, in the context of decades of falling faith in government, frequent government shutdowns and near-debt crises, and a fracturing Republican Party, is something deeper and more dangerous afoot?
On a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, I posed this question to political scientist Francis Fukuyama, whose recent books on the development and decay of liberal democracies offers a much broader perspective on whether America’s political system is genuinely imperiled.
Fukuyama’s answer wasn’t particularly comforting. “We are going through one of the most severe political crises I have experienced in my lifetime,” he said.
You can listen to our full conversation — and subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show — here. Excerpts of our discussion, edited for length and clarity, follow.
America, a “vetocracy”
I’d like to get a sense of where you see American politics right now. You have this wonderful framing device in your book Political Origins, in which you say countries are in some ways trying to get to a stable, liberal democracy like Denmark.
Right now, do you think America is in the Denmark category?
The other big political theme in my book is political decay.
So countries move toward Denmark, but they never quite get there — I don’t think even Denmark is quite the Denmark of the popular imagination. But they can move backward, and we are going through one of the most severe political crises I have experienced in my lifetime.
You have a candidate who could undo a lot of the institutional rules we’ve come to accept for American politics. The Trump candidacy represents the forgotten white working class that has been underrepresented in American democracy over the past generation. So they’re getting a voice — it’s the correct working of democracy. But it’s very unlikely to result in changes that will fix any of the underlying problems that make people upset.
What do you think Trump represents in terms of those basic foundations about the construction of institutions, from the 30,000-foot level? We’re caught up in talking about Trump as an individual too often.
I coined a phrase in the book — “vetocracy,” meaning “rule by veto.” And the broader argument is that the American political system has always made it very hard for the government to actually do things because it gives a lot of parts of the political system veto rights over what the system does.
In most of the 20th century this was not a terrible system, because there was a lot of overlap between the major political parties. And so all of the major pieces of legislation — the Great Society, the Reagan tax cuts — were based on cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. But a lot has changed, including the partisan polarization in Congress and in the broader society, as well as the rise of interest groups.
I think the political decay comes in when those interest groups really use their power to veto things not in their interest. This carried interest provision — which allows hedge fund managers to be taxed only at 15 percent where everyone else has to pay closer to 40 percent ... nobody justifies this except a very small group of people, politically, but we can’t get rid of it because that group is well-funded enough to veto the kind of legislation we’d need to change the law.
People perceive this on the left and the right. The Trump supporters and the Sanders supporters don’t like hedge fund managers and the oligarchs that populate American politics and are struggling to solve the problem.
Would you have said three or four years ago that the American political system is as vulnerable as you might say it is today?
No, I wouldn’t have.
We went through a period like this in the 1930s after the Great Depression where you had a lot of economic distress and a lot of radical policies being pursued, and Germany and Italy went off in this authoritarian direction and the United States chose Franklin Roosevelt — a radical in the context of American politics, but [he] stayed well within the political frame.
I think people thought that just reflected a very different kind of American political culture that is deeply democratic and liberal. I think this election year has suggested that maybe we were just lucky back then and there was nothing deeply constraining that kind of move other than just good leadership.
What countries in the world do you think are governed best?
I think a lot of the Commonwealth countries — Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Countries like Germany, Denmark — the Scandinavian countries. They’re not polarized in any way like we are here. They’ve enacted pretty difficult, let’s say, labor market reforms that caused anguish and internal controversy, but they did it and have better policies as a result.
I don’t think there’s a general problem to democratic governance, but you can see the threat to them all around the margins. Because I think some of those successful countries, especially the Scandinavian ones, are pretty small and pretty homogeneous.
Why Fukuyama thinks class is the right way to talk about Trump voters
I think there’s been a tendency in the conversation to sanitize the forces powering Trump. It’s very comfortable for cosmopolitan political elites to say, “The white working class is economically struggling, and if we just put into effect my economic opinions, there’d be no problem.’
People are very comfortable arguing about trade policy or taxes or mills closing. But if you are going to take Trump voters’ concerns seriously, it seems to me you have to take seriously that very real skepticism against where the country is headed demographically — and that includes things like letting Muslims and Mexican immigrants in.
Well, it depends on how you interpret what you just said.
You didn’t use the words “racism,” “bigotry,” “prejudice,” but that seems to me part of the argument you’re making — that this is driven by bad motives and not just the reasonable reactions of working-class people to losing their jobs and livelihoods.
I appreciate that you notice I didn’t use those words!
It seems to me we need to have space in the conversation for something that is not quite racism but is clearly an anxiety around demographic change. I think a lot of people are feeling something that’s not what we’d label as “racism” but is a profound concern about their place in society that’s tied to race. It’s questions of, “Where am I in society? Where are my children going to be in the hierarchy of American power in 10 years?”
Well, that’s fine. I think that’s a good, non-pejorative way of putting it. And I think that’s a correct analysis of what’s happening.
We’ve seen the Democratic Party become this party of identity politics. It’s assembled all these different categories — gays, African Americans, Hispanics. And the one group that was missing was this white working class, where they’d all drifted to the Republican Party.
If you think about the problem in terms of identity, we have these people who used to be in the dominant culture in the country. And all of a sudden, all these other identity groups appear, and they’re getting affirmative action and seem to be getting government policy. And [they] say, “What about us?” Because being working class has put us at these huge disadvantages, objectively.
I think that is the anxiety behind it, and you can’t just say, “It’s racism and bigotry.”
I feel like this conversation might lead a Martian to believe that African Americans have much higher incomes than the white working class. But they don’t. There’s still a lot of racism and bigotry and sexism in society.
We are in this weird moment where the sense of who is privileged and who is empowered is very difficult to disentangle. You have a much broader perspective on how polities deal with this kind of question. So what is a successful way to deal with this?
You don’t want to say, “Well, we have identity politics, and here’s this other group, white people, and they’re an identity group, too. And we need to accommodate them as an identity group the way we have for gays, African Americans, and Hispanics.” That’s really a big mistake.
Even if you don’t think this is all being driven by economic distress, I think it’s much better to talk about this in class terms rather than identity terms. Class is much more neutral, and, in fact, it is the central divide in American politics today.
If you look across African Americans, you’ve had a middle class do extremely well over the last generation. And you have an underclass that’s been extremely stagnant. Keeping the focus on class is important.
In terms of identity, you do not want to validate identity politics in the way that everyone belongs to a victimized list. You want to talk positively about American identity and the shared values it consists of, because that’s how you integrate people into a larger cultural whole.
That’s been done by presidents in the past, but I don’t hear most of the candidates doing it in this election.
What President Fukuyama would do
Agreeing no parliamentary system is in the offing in America, what are the process reforms that feel like they might be near at hand? That could actually happen in the next 10 to 15 years?
If the problem is vetocracy, meaning too many veto points, you have an agenda to reduce the veto points.
I’d start with senatorial holds. It’s absurd that any senator can block any presidential appointment that’s up for Senate confirmation they want. There’s a huge backlog of judges and administrators because of the polarization.
I’d get rid of the filibuster so you don’t need a supermajority to pass routine legislation. I say that with some trepidation, because with a President Trump that’d be quite useful.
My colleague at Stanford has a new book saying you can shift the powers dramatically to the executive branch, where Congress can no longer propose legislation but can only vote up or down proposed by the executive. I think it’s too dramatic a shift, but you could do that for the federal budget. It’d go to Congress for an up-or-down vote, or, more realistically given that Americans probably wouldn’t approve that, you could do something like that in Congress itself.
Let’s say the next president says, “I’ve read your books on political decay, and I totally agree it’s a huge problem.” What do you tell them to do?
You would need to address the problem of campaign finance on the left and right motivating a lot of the anger. If it requires political pressure on the court to require higher regulation of money in politics, that would be part of the agenda.
Fundamentally, the inequality problem is also the driver of a lot of the anger. There’s two things I think you could do that would have an impact: tax reform that would get rid of our ridiculous tax forms that are full of giveaways for special interests in the country. And then infrastructure — a big investment spree that would have to be accompanied by changes to rules that make it hard to get these changes done in less than 10 years.
Between those two things, I think you’d address the underlying causes of voter anger.