These days, Washington is stuck in a nasty Nash equilibrium. The two dominant parties — the anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-government wing of the Republican Party, and the raise-taxes-on-the-rich-but-don’t-touch-my-entitlement wing of the Democratic Party — have fought each other to stalemate. Every few weeks or so, some event or deadline comes along that appears to hold out the prospect that one side or the other might prevail and thereby break the deadlock. But, in the end, nothing really gets resolved, nobody wins and the stalemate continues.
There was, as you recall, the threatened government shutdown last December, followed by the debt ceiling fight in the spring, which led to the supercommittee failure this fall, which gave rise to another threat of government shutdown last week, while postponing until March 1 the battle royale over a further extension of a temporary payroll tax cut. Anyone who believes that these dramatic showdowns will actually resolve anything of significance might also want to rush right out to the mall and let Santa know which color mink you would like for Christmas.
The conventional wisdom is that all of this will get sorted out by the election next year, when the voters will supposedly deliver their definitive verdict after being presented with starkly contrasting visions for the role and size and cost of government. When the votes are all counted, however, the more likely outcome is that we’ll be left with a slightly reconfigured version of the same divided government that we have now: a wounded Democrat in the White House, a smaller Republican majority in the House and a Senate so paralyzed by its own rules that it won’t matter which party has the slim majority.
There are lots of different institutional strands that come together to create this political Gordian knot. Fragmentation of the media. A highly partisan redistricting process. The proliferation of narrow special interest groups. The disappearance of any sense of stewardship on the part of the business and political elite.
No factor, however, has been more important than the tidal wave of political money that has overwhelmed the political system. This money has now corrupted and polarized the legislative process, warped the judgment of elected officials and regulators, transformed elections into destructive media wars and provided the whip that enforces party discipline.
Who’s money is it? Actually, a lot of it is yours. Some of it is in the form of direct political contributions to campaigns, political parties and political action committees. But an increasing share of it comes indirectly — every time you pay dues to join a labor union or a professional association, when you buy shares of stock in a company, when join a church, an environmental organization, a gun club or the local chamber of commerce. It is in your name, with your money, that this unproductive game is played. One way or another, we are all enablers.