NYT Columnist Ezra Klein: Politics Shouldn’t Solely Be About Amplifying Arguments

“It’s how we tell kids politics works and how my sons will learn it worked in elementary school,” Klein said. “You have elections, somebody wins, they implement their agenda, the public judges them, they have to get more power to implement more agenda or they get kicked out and the other party gets a term. I think it’s a pretty good system.”

Klein said that’s not how it actually works, though. In America, it’s possible for both parties to win power, which is not true in most governments. For example, the president could be from one party and the Speaker of the House and/or the Senate Majority Leader could be from the other party. Even if one party controls all three of those leadership positions, the filibuster, a number of veto points and the Supreme Court all make it difficult to pass and enact policy. He used the current government makeup—President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, all Democrats—as an example of the latter.

“We have a very unusually difficult system in which to get anything done,” Klein said.

And he said the public, who is judging each party’s performance, doesn’t closely monitor filibusters, compromises and budget reconciliation, so they don’t have a full sense of what is happening and why some things didn’t happen when it comes time to vote. They only see that promises were made and not fulfilled.

Even if the public isn’t happy, the party in power doesn’t automatically get voted out. Klein mentioned the effect the Electoral College and gerrymandering—which Klein described as a “fun game we play in America where the politicians can choose their voters as opposed to the voters choosing their politicians”—has on elections.

“If the governing party does lose power, the other party gets a term to disappoint the country for the same reasons,” Klein said. “And so over time, the country’s frustration builds, people get angry, they keep shifting back and forth between the parties, which is what we’re seeing now. We’ve never had a period in American politics, where party control of the government was so unstable and went back and forth so often. This is unique. And I think it’s because people are frustrated. They keep trying to elect somebody who’s going to solve the problems and it keeps not quite working.”

Factoring into the equation of how politics works is the fact that arguments are polarizing, while policy, once implemented at least, often isn’t, Klein said.

Klein used the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, as an example. Citing Kaiser Family Foundation polling that began long before the legislation was passed, continued through 2014 just before it was implemented and ran well into 2020, Klein showed how public perception of the bill changed. Early on, during the arguments, which included all Republicans vowing to repeal the law and the Supreme Court cases, opposition was fairly high.

As soon as people began to experience the effects of the law—such as a Republican whose older child could now be on their insurance or a family member who lost a job, became self-employed and received insurance through the Affordable Care Act—support grew for the law and opposition declined.

“There’s a lot of things I don’t like about Obamacare and a lot of ways that I would like to change that bill, but nevertheless, for all of its flaws, for all the ways that it had to be a … compromised down thing because of the way it had to pass, it still, as a real policy, ended up resolving the debate over itself,” Klein said.

Klein listed numerous other examples including the Bush Tax Cuts, Medicare prescription drug benefit and the Dodd-Frank Act. He provided similar polling data for the Bush Tax Cuts, showing they were originally very controversial and public opinion was evenly split on whether they were a good idea. Since they were passed by budget reconciliation, they were set to expire after 10 years, when a Democratic president was then in charge. Instead of simply letting them expire, the Democrats reached a compromise with Republicans to keep the cuts for all but the wealthiest people after originally promising to completely repeal them. That’s because after experiencing the tax cuts for a decade, 40% of people thought all the tax cuts should remain in place and 44% thought they should only end for wealthy Americans.

Klein offered constructive ways to improve politics in the country. He noted his suggestions were not originally his ideas, but ones he has gathered from others. His eight proposals included getting rid of the filibuster and the Electoral College, expanding the House of Representatives from 435 to 1,000 members, adding Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico (if they choose) to the Senate, term limits on the Supreme Court and party balancing on the Supreme Court.

In the question-and-answer session, Klein was asked about a number of topics, ranging from social media and polarization to the role a university such as Lehigh has in reducing polarization.

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