The waves now roiling American politics are more than a historical shift in the fortunes of political parties, more than just another populist revolt.
We are seeing an unarticulated but deeply felt response against a fundamental change that has taken place in recent decades. American democracy has steadily moved from a political system based on "voice" to one based on "rights."
That shift is reflected in the enormous growth of this government's administrative and judicial bodies. More and more of America's political life has been driven through courts (abortion is a notable case) and administrative agencies (like the Environmental Protection Agency).
These institutional changes are reflected in the culture of politics — and more specifically in the culture of rights. When this transformation began with the civil rights movement, there was a broadening consensus that certain rights had to be more vigorously enforced. These rights, such as the right to vote or to not face discrimination on the basis of race, were critical for the functioning of democracy.
However, since the 1960s the domain of rights expanded. Rights became more than a mechanism to ensure a functioning democracy. Or, at least, rights were claimed in areas that were in a gray zone, with little popular consensus. Take the argument on abortion. Both prolife and prochoice movements claimed a right was involved — of the fetus or of the pregnant woman. Those who propagated such rights saw them as absolute, not open to democratic compromise. Instead of working out compromises through state legislatures or Congress, the fight was driven into the courts. The court had to arbitrate whose right was more right.
Much of the political class and the intelligentsia — academics and media figures — have signed on to the culture of rights. "Voice" is suspect in such circles. Thus most attacks on the tea party have been grounded not in policy, but in cultural issues like racial tension or education levels. The problem here is that democracy as the voice of the people has been constrained. The Democratic Party has put itself at risk by often stressing "gray zone" rights — areas where there is no consensus, such as health care — rather than voice.
Liberals felt that as the financial crisis kicked in, after President Barack Obama took power, this would be perceived as a crisis of capitalism. They felt the public would accept — even welcome — transformative economic and social policies. This, after all, is what followed the last major crisis of capitalism — namely the Great Depression. That collapse provoked far-reaching social and economic changes like the New Deal. But what the Democrats failed to understand, and just about everyone in fact does not see, is how the enormous shift that took place in the last 50 years has transformed American politics.
A resentment has built up against the political elites, the academics, the media and the corporate class. Force-fed health care reform, under the premise that there exists a right to health care, inflamed this resentment. The public responded with fury. Suggestions among some media figures that the protesters were racists or simply yahoos just reinforced an image of self-satisfied elitism. Worse, the attempt to dismiss the protests was viewed — with some justification — as a disdain for democracy.
Objections to "big government" are not very well articulated. We assume it is about growing budgets and regulations. But the public will support certain "entitlements" where we have a consensus, such as Medicare. (Thus we have the apparent puzzle of people accepting certain federal programs but not others.) Yet it is not sufficient to simply build up constituencies for, say, health care by promising benefits. Public fears tap into deeper concerns about a political class run rampant and dismissive of popular opinion.
What are the lessons? The Democratic Party has for too long relied on the politics of rights and institutions. The party needs to come to terms once more with its namesake, democracy. This means doing the painstaking work of building up a consensus for certain policies. Politicians need to rely less on courts and administrative mechanisms (such as the EPA claiming authority to push through policies to deal with global warming). Nor should legislation be force-fed against obvious public disapproval. The elite that is feared and resented includes a corporate elite, but the Democratic Party cannot limit its focus to that dimension.
More broadly, the intellectuals and experts (including academics like me) need a bit of introspective contemplation. We are losing the public. The legitimacy of the universities, experts and even science becomes weaker as a result. The consequences will be severe for the country as a whole if this hemorrhage is not stanched.
David Jacobson is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of South Florida-Tampa and is a visiting fellow at the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies, University of Exeter. He is the author of "Rights Across Borders: Immigration and the Decline of Citizenship" and "Place and Belonging in America," both published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.