The curse of victory

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Robert Samuelson

Robert Samuelson

WASHINGTON: Regardless of who wins this bitterly contested election, the victor will face the same basic, daunting, task: reconciling the vast promises that have been made, both in this campaign and earlier, with the government’s limited ability to meet those promises.

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It won’t be easy.

You can blame Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or both for this campaign’s guttural nature — the lies, insults, exaggerations and accusations — and certainly they can’t be exonerated from the sins of distortion and embitterment. But it is too easy to blame this democratic debacle only on the candidates’ flaws.

There are deeper causes, as I argued in a column some weeks ago. I headlined that column, “Why this campaign was so nasty” (http://tinyurl.com/he4b553). The thesis was relatively simple, suggested by historian Marc Levinson’s new book “An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy” (http://tinyurl.com/gpugksk).

In brief, the first (roughly) quarter-century after World War II featured an explosion of economic growth in most of the developed world — the United States, Western Europe, Japan — that changed democratic politics. With strong economies producing rising tax revenues, governments were expected to remedy societies’ various defects with new spending transfers and social programs. The problem, as Levinson shows, is that rapid economic growth was fading by the early 1970s.

From this emerged a more-or-less permanent mismatch: Electorates retained the upbeat expectation of the early postwar decades, but economies could not meet all the resulting wishes and hopes. Politics became more cynical, as its practitioners strove to straddle the contradiction.

The first casualty (no surprise!) was truth. Political leaders here and elsewhere strove to conceal the contradiction. Chronic budget deficits became routine in many countries, including the United States, as a way of avoiding unpopular tax increases and maintaining popular spending programs.

When deficits became too big to ignore, politicians sought to change the subject. This is the simplest explanation of why Trump and, to a lesser extent, Clinton switched to other themes: Trump, to draconian steps to change trade and immigration policies; Clinton, to a new generation of social welfare subsidies for preschool, child care and college tuition.

Still, the contradiction will not retreat. We expect our political leaders to do the impossible — to use the fruits of meager economic growth to fix mega social problems — and when they predictably fail, we conclude that they are inept or dishonest. The paradox is that government stands discredited by its very commitments to be helpful and to alleviate human misery, which breed more demands than can be reasonably met.

What would in these circumstances have been desirable and useful — but also innocent and unlikely — was a debate on the realistic and legitimate functions of government. A dose of candor might actually make it easier to govern, but not of course easier to get elected. The victor will be blessed with triumph and cursed by popular contradictions.

© 2016, THE WASHINGTON POST

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