On the Challenge of Studying the Confluence of Policy and Governance

            We live in a time of economic uncertainty and political acrimony, brought on in no small measure by slow real income increases for many Americans for forty years, by continuing relatively high unemployment in the wake of the recession of the end of the last decade and by the growth of anti-government populism that has attended those conditions. These trends were quickened by ongoing economic globalization that has allowed capitalist firms to be active across nations, and by neo-liberalism that has called for weakening governments' capacities to respond just as the force of these economic changes hit their zenith. In addition, consumerism has gained an unprecedented hold in most western nations and American society during the roughly four decades that neoliberalism has held policy sway. Finally, U.S. public policy of the 2001-2008 period—inspired by neoliberalism’s emphasis on the market, by supply-side economics and by a vigorous nationalism following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.—resulted in huge current accounts deficits in the national budget and a ballooning federal debt. These fiscal consequences arose from the prosecution of two debt-financed wars that cost upwards of $2 trillion, even as federal income taxes were reduced for most Americans (disproportionately for the most wealthy). The upshot of these policy choices as they have interacted with the broader trends within which they were taken, and apart from their specific budgetary impacts, has been rapidly rising economic inequality amidst declining real income growth for millions of Americans and a deep and rancorous partisan debate concerning how best to proceed for the future.

            This fraught political and policy context illustrates the significance of the central point of this commentary. The faculty and staff at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (VTIPG) have been charged by our university to study the confluence of policy-making and governance. This imperative demands that we consider overarching trends in the nation’s economy, politics and society and seek to understand their relationships to how the nation’s governmental leaders behave and rationalize their actions in order to chart their implications for the people they serve and for the democratic health of the polity. Since the nation’s political leaders do not operate in a vacuum, but in reaction to their sense of what concerns and will move and mobilize citizens, we seek to understand Americans’ changing attitudes and perceptions of governance concerns as well.

            One example of a major political trend we are now examining in these terms—a reaction to the difficult policy and governance scenario outlined above—is a libertarian movement within the Republican Party in the U.S. that has sought to blame past foreign, tax and defense policy choices and costs on the current presidential administration particularly and on overweening government more generally. These advocates argue the nation must retrench in all areas except military spending (and some call for large reductions in defense expenditures as well) because the country’s debt and deficit make such imperative. This contention is paired with the claim that those receiving educational or social support are undeserving, so little will be lost by demanding that they not receive aid. In keeping with this overall approach, although animated by neoliberalism rather than libertarianism, when reelected in 2004 President George W. Bush sought unsuccessfully to privatize the Social Security system on the view that the market could replace government in this role. Others in his party have consistently sought reductions in social service and social safety net expenditures since, especially and notably in the Party’s “alternative” House-passed budgets of recent years. For their part, Democrats have pressed to preserve the nation’s social programs and to distinguish between government and any reforms it may require and the imperative need to ensure effective governance.

            This brief snapshot of the nation’s political context does not alone explain the bitterness GOP stalwarts have displayed toward America’s first African-American president, nor their unprecedented determination to derail virtually every major effort President Barack Obama has embraced during his presidency. While many have argued this unvarying opposition is the result of racism and the fact that the Republican Party’s base is located in the nation’s south and many of its “new era” conservative leaders have espoused views that have raised doubts about their commitment to civil rights, that argument does not itself appear to explain the wholesale effort the GOP has launched to stymie this president and to mistrust all he undertakes.

            Nor, does the southern base of the Republican Party explain its turn to anti- intellectualism as evidenced by its leaders’ decision to deny the existence of climate change. These choices seem more closely tied to a long-standing cultural tendency in the U.S. that advocates and would-be leaders are exploiting to prevent near-term costs to current industry (a key campaign funds supporter) and as a strategy allied with efforts to mobilize citizens against “government” to gain perceived electoral advantage. In addition to these policy stands, many in the libertarian wing of the party have adopted an absolutist orientation that see any compromise as weak and any countenancing of alternative points-of-view as betrayal to their perspective and demands.

            Our remit here at VTIPG requires that we consider such political phenomena as those just described in light of their implications for ongoing social, economic and political trends and the vibrancy of our democracy. It is an ambitious undertaking and it is made more challenging as our work is most often focused on the vulnerable and disadvantaged in American society who have historically often felt the sting of rights deprivation. The civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights and gay rights movements have all sensitized Americans to the ways in which the citizenry’s shared norms, prejudices and attitudes were systematically depriving some in their midst of their rights and, in some cases, their freedom. It is important and difficult to understand the claims and counter-claims of all engaged in these and other policy related arguments and the citizen attitudes that undergird them to come to fair-minded judgments concerning them in order to gauge their significance for governance and for policy design and implementation. Moreover it is insufficient simply to report leader or citizen beliefs since those views can be, and often have been historically, tyrannical in their intention and/or outcomes.

            Unlike many, we do not, as our primary focus, view these issues through a lens of “who is up” and “who is down” in opinion polls, although such concerns do matter since perceived public standing and elections establish policy options and direction. In any case, these questions already receive strong attention from many scholars and journalists. Instead, we are more interested in the larger question of discerning how political, economic and social trends are shaping the fundaments of self-governance and freedom while also tracing the implications of that direction for policy action and implementation. This orientation underscores our shared interest in the changing character of the nation’s culture and its economy for our collective politics and for its implications for the rights and life possibilities of America’s citizens.

            We aim not only to assist the governments and civil society organizations that engage us to aid them and to learn from those efforts, but also to inform a broader audience through our research of the larger trends that shape the nation’s political debate and its policy choices (whether those represent actions or decisions not to act) that we encounter in our work. We are partisans of effective democratic governance and of the rights of the American citizenry, rather than any single political party or dogma. That said, like many, we here at the Institute are frankly concerned about the implications for American democracy of today’s too frequent single-minded attempts, whatever their origins, to undermine governance in the name of one or another ideology or to label government as per se anathema, or to stigmatize any group of citizens as “unworthy.” Such choices signal an unwillingness to deal with the messiness of heterogeneity and democratic responsibility while according all equal standing in that conversation. This tendency constitutes dangerous ground for a diverse polity that would be free. We hope to continue the focus outlined here and to contribute our voice and the fruits of our inquiry to the nation’s ongoing policy debate as our country grapples with the implications of its past choices and with a changing and fractious global economic and political landscape, itself shaped in part by those decisions.

Note to readers: This, the 25th Tidings, is the last that will appear in this way. When I began writing this column the Institute did not publish a quarterly newsletter, nor did I write a weekly Soundings commentary. It appears appropriate now to offer Tidings, which will continue, as the Director’s reflection in our future newsletters. Thank you to all of you who have read these columns during the last several years. I hope you will continue to do so under its new banner. MOS