“Politics as a clash of interests”: Jay Cost on the Current American Political Climate

Jay Cost has written extensively on politics through both a contemporary and historical lenses, as the author of HorseRaceBlog at RealClearPolitics and as a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. In addition, Cost has written Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic and A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption. Cost held an email conversation with the Gate’s Santi Ruiz to discuss his academic work and the ideological future of American politics.

The Gate: As a political historian, you’ve written extensively on turmoil in the American Republic. Where would you situate our current political climate in that context?

Jay Cost: I’d suggest at least two, big historical factors that are at work. First, there was about a fifty-year period in the twentieth century, from approximately 1913-1966, when the authority of the federal government was massively expanded, much further than the Framers in 1787 would have ever conceived (let alone advocated). But importantly, the structure of the Constitution was not really updated so that the government could realize these new goals. We have the same, old “small government” structure to accomplish these grand, new “big government” tasks. I talk about this in my last book, A Republic No More. The bottom line is that our government is not well designed to do such an expansive job, which leaves the public deeply frustrated and even alienated.

Second, the groundwork was laid for a substantially more diverse electorate during that same period. The Nineteenth Amendment brought women into the electorate. The Voting Rights Act brought African Americans into the electorate. And the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 inaugurated a new era of immigration, particularly from Asia and Central America. In Federalist 10, Madison talks about diversity as a strength of our system of government, in a defensive sense: A diverse republic will make it very hard for one faction to amount to a majority that can abuse the rights and interests of the others. But there is a flip side. Because our government operates on the basis of consensus, and because diverse populations are often incapable of reaching a consensus, a frequent result is inaction and gridlock. Personally, gridlock does not much bother me, but the average voter tends to be displeased over it.

Gate: About a month ago, in your piece “Can the Left Get a Grip?” you suggested that liberal figures like Keith Olbermann and Paul Krugman were wildly overreacting to the upcoming Trump presidency. Now that he’s been inaugurated, where do you expect the left to go from here?

Cost: My hope is that liberals get serious. I think they will. I think one problem has been that not a lot has been happening, in policy terms, so liberals have been channeling their anxieties onto the trivial. My expectation is that when we start talking about SCOTUS nominees, Obamacare replacement, tax reform, etc., the left finds its footing again. The left also needs to stop underestimating Trump (a mistake we conservatives made during the primaries!), and stop taking his bait so often.

Gate: Conversely, do you think traditional, small-government conservatism has a future in the Republican Party?

Cost: The Republican party is not a small-government party. It is a big-government party that has different ends in mind than the Democrats do, and employs different means in pursuit of those ends. In terms of its ends, the GOP is a pro-business/pro-traditional family coalition, and it is happy to employ the powers of the federal government for its particular vision of the ideal society. In terms of its means, the GOP prefers to use tax preferences, federally-backed loans to businesses, and private-sector mediators more than the Democrats.

To me, this suggests that both parties support big government. And I think that small-government conservatives have generally failed to frame the case for their alternative in pragmatic terms—i.e., why this kind of social and economic engineering, be it from the right or the left, is not all it’s cracked up to be. My work of late has been an effort to make such an argument—detailing how a government as large and intrusive as ours lends itself to political corruption, which inevitably favors the wealthy few over the masses.

Gate: You’ve talked about the recent “explosion” of scholarship on the Founding Fathers. What prompted that trend? Do you expect it to continue?

Cost: I think one of the reasons might be the digitization of the historical record. It is a lot easier to access the papers of the Founding Fathers now than it was even ten years ago. That lowers the transaction costs of research, which has yielded more research.

Gate: You’ve described the president as a fundamentally “constrained actor” politically, balanced by a “potentially implacable foe” in Congress, among other things. Do you expect the current Congress to be an adequate check on Trump? What should we look out for as good indicators of whether it will be?

Cost: The “adequacy” of the check on Trump will probably be in the eye of the beholder. I’d guess that Paul Krugman will find the GOP Congress wholly inadequate! From my perspective, it will probably be a mixed bag. The president will set the broad legislative agenda, but the details will belong almost entirely to Congress. The threat of a veto is a relatively empty threat, especially against your own side, especially in your first year, especially on marquee legislation. So Kevin Brady, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, is going to have a lot more say in the details of tax reform than President Donald Trump. On the flip side, Congress is not going to go out of its way to investigate the president, to hold his executive appointments to account, or respond when the executive branch tramples on legislative prerogatives. Such conflict creates bad headlines for the party, which undermine its re-election chances.

The great constraint, in my estimation, is the impending midterm election. If the people decide that total Republican control of the government is a bad thing, they can sweep the Democrats back into power—at least in the House. And then there will be an implacable foe. Speaker Nancy Pelosi will not go along with Trump’s agenda, and her committee chairs will investigate everything they possibly can.

Gate: Can you talk about your decision to leave the GOP?

Cost: Part of it had to do with my answer to your third question. I just don’t see it as a small government party. My view of the GOP changed substantially when I wrote A Republic No More. I came to see the GOP as a facilitator of what Ted Lowi calls “interest-group liberalism,” or the doling out of government munificence to well-placed interests.

What bugged me this summer was the party’s incapacity to stop Trump from winning the nomination. A party, in my view, is supposed to be a group people trying to win elections to enact a specific governing agenda. That implies a certain separation from the people at large—the party offers a program to the voters, but it formulates that program based on its own principles. As such, I expected the party to intervene when the people nominated a candidate who does not embody several core Republican principles. But it didn’t. So, I decided this was not an organization worth belonging to anymore.

Gate: You recently successfully defended your Ph.D. here at UChicago. Congratulations! Tell us a little about that process and your experience here.

Cost: I took a very serpentine path to get my degree! I enrolled at Chicago back in 2002 to work on political theory. At the time I was really interested in people like F.A. Hayek and Karl Popper. But there just didn’t seem to be any action there, so I jumped over to American politics. I loved reading the scholarly literature, but I never came up with a really good idea for a dissertation. I took a full time job at RealClearPolitics in 2007, and just kind of drifted away from the program.  I came back in 2015 with an idea about James Madison and eighteenth-century republican political thought, and the political science department was happy to have me back. My dissertation chair, Nathan Tarcov, was great, as were the other members of the committee, Mark Hansen and James Wilson.

Gate: What advice would you give to students looking to think and write cogently about politics?

Cost: To think cogently about politics, I’d recommend taking a class on political economy. In my first quarter at Chicago, I took Duncan Snidal’s “Political Economy of Public Policy” at the Harris School. I had come to Chicago to do normative political theory, but wasn’t in love with the course offerings, so I took that class. It was an eye-opener. Beyond the particular lessons (on the folk theorem, Coase theorem, Nash equilibria, etc.), it got me thinking about politics as a clash of interests, rather than strictly right versus wrong.

To write cogently about politics, you have to outline, then edit your outline, then edit it again. Organization is of the first consequence.

Moreover, I recommend reading your essays aloud. Writing is about presenting your ideas clearly to others. When you read your essays aloud, you can often hear how certain sentences are confusing, repetitive, irrelevant, misplaced, etc. If it sounds good to you, the chances are better that it will read good to others.

Finally, don’t fall in love with your prose—be a vicious and uncompromising editor of your own material. When I first started as a writer, it’d take me 3,000 words to make the same argument I can now make in 1,200. This decreases the time it takes for a reader to read me, which increases the chances I’ll be read.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

The image featured in this article has been taken from Robert Morris University’s YouTube page, and can be found here.

Comments

comments