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Edsall's Zero-Sum Dystopia

If you are interested in reading a thoughtful piece that will distract you from the day-to-day banalities of politics, while providing a fresh reason to vote and volunteer for campaign activities, check out Thomas Edsall's essay on the politics of austerity, which is in the latest print version of The New Republic.

Edsall begins with the questionable but much-subscribed-to idea that debt-and-deficits will overshadow U.S. politics for years to come, mainly because the economy won't resume the kind of growth we used to be accustomed to for many years to come.

Once you buy that premise, then much of what he goes on to say does make sense, and it's a depressing picture:

With resources shrinking, the competition for them will inflame. Each party will find itself in a death struggle to protect the resources that flow to its base--and, since the game will be zero-sum, each will attempt to expropriate the resources that flow to the other side. This resource war will scramble our politics. Each party will be forced to dramatically change its calculus and remake its agenda. And if you thought our politics had grown nasty, you haven't even begun to consider the ugliness of the politics of scarcity.

In an atmosphere of austerity, says Edsall, Democrats will be forced to defend the less popular government spending programs, and Republicans will more-and-more openly operate as the party of anxious and resentful older white people who don't so much want government to shrink as to make sure they are the only beneficiaries. This is Edsall's way of explaining why Republicans this year are simultaneously posing as anti-government libertarians while swearing to protect Medicare; it's just a matter of playing to their constituencies:

Republicans understand that one axis of the resource war will be generational. All of their vows to defend Medicare are coupled with attacks on Obama's health care reform. They implicitly portray Democrats as waging an age war--creating a massive new government program that transfers dollars to the young at the expense of the elderly. Republicans have cleverly stoked the fear that Obama is rewarding all his exuberant, youthful, idealistic supporters by redistributing resources that are badly needed by the old.

There's not much doubt that's true, or more generally, that today's GOP, with our without racial undertones, is battening on the resentment of older white Americans that not only their hard-earned tax dollars, but their hard-earned entitlement benefits, are being threatened by Democrats representing people who are younger and darker than they are.

Edsall has few doubts about the likely winners and losers in a zero-sum politics of austerity:

There's no doubt which groups will prevail--and which will fall--in these wars. We can already see that the politics of scarcity will inflict the greatest wounds on the poor. The political vulnerability of programs serving impoverished minority constituencies is self-evident. The suffering caused by these cuts is a tragic consequence of this new dynamic. We will not have conceived cuts in a spirit of the common good, or with any eye to creating sound policy, but out of a sense of gamesmanship and the mean-spiritedness that is integral to intense competition over a shrinking pie.

Now if some of this sounds familiar to older readers, it's probably because the "politics of scarcity" was a standard theme in the stagflation-ridden 1970s. Turns out the United States was not, after all, condemned to an endless future of slow growth and bad choices. Perhaps Edsall's view of the era ahead of us is off as well. But he's absolutely right that the nastiness of Great Recession politics, and perhaps the sudden revival of GOP electoral fortunes, has something to do with the rescission of social solidarity and the reemergence of resource fights among highly self-conscious groups of Americans (including the wealthy, who seem as angry and aggrieved as anyone else). With virtually no consensus across party lines about how to conduct government and not just how but whether there is such a thing as "common good," it's no time to stand on the sidelines and hope for the best. The stakes, particularly for the most vulnerable Americans, are just too high.