As part of the Bipartisan Political Series at the University, Treasurer of the Wesleyan Republicans Mathias Valenta ’20 and member of the Wesleyan Republicans Catherine Cervone ’19, in cooperation with Co-Chair of the Wesleyan Democrats Simon Korn ’17, sponsored a political forum for students and faculty on Thursday, Feb. 23.
The forum, titled “The Impact of Polarization on Contemporary Policy” featured a lecture and Q&A session with Dean of the Social Sciences and Henry Merritt Wriston Chair of Public Policy Marc Eisner. Eisner is the author of 10 books and has conducted extensive research on the U.S. political economy and public policy legislation. His latest book, “Regulatory Politics in the Age of Polarization and Drift: Beyond Deregulation,” explores how party polarization and regulatory legislation have created a political climate rampant with regulatory drift and inadequate economic and environmental statutes.
Cervone opened the forum with a brief introduction, explaining the rationale behind the speaker series and highlighting a need for more open, bipartisan discussion at the University.
“We recognized the necessity on this campus for dialogue and communication, as both Republicans and Democrats, we really understand the importance of feeling like you have a voice, especially after the last election,” said Cervone. “So with that sentiment, we decided to reach across the divide to team up with WesDems in hosting this speaker series, a discussion forum with the purpose of really understanding what the other side thinks. Not debating, just understanding and trying to understand the logic.”
Eisner introduced himself to the group by flippantly declaring that he had not voted for a major-party presidential candidate since 1996, then asked the group of approximately twenty students and staff to introduce themselves as well. He launched into a short explanation of his work and its relation to the topic at hand.
“We’ve faced some of the most significant regulatory failures in U.S. history in the last few years, if you think back to the financial collapse of 2008, followed by the Great Recession,” said Eisner. “You can think back to the BP Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010…. And I think a real easy response to try to make sense of them is to say, as Barney Frank did, that this is an indictment of America’s 30-year experiment with deregulation. But the thing you quickly discover when looking at oil exploration and looking at the financial system, you find out that the deregulation wasn’t nearly as much a part of the story as people oftentimes suggest.”
Eisner refutes that explanation, arguing that the sector responsible for the global financial crisis of 2008, as well as the relatively new field of deep water oil exploration, had never been regulated. Rather, the highly specific language of early regulatory legislation and the phenomenon of bureaucratic drift provide more plausible explanations for the current state of political affairs: a highly polarized Congress that rarely, if ever, succeeds in passing bipartisan legislation and repeatedly fails to expand regulatory oversight in new and emerging fields. Eisner referred to this phenomenon as a “procedural cartel.”
“Basically, the majority party assumes control of the body and says, ‘We make policy and you sit and watch,’” he elaborated. “Under these conditions, legislative productivity falls dramatically…. [The Hasker Rule states] that no bill will be submitted to the floor for a vote unless it can can claim a majority of the majority.”
Prompted by a student, Eisner went on to explain how regulatory gridlock and the resulting crises have affected the political sorting of voters and the rise of a new nationalist agenda. He noted that despite deep ideological differences, political groups in the post-financial crisis era, such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, have had very similar complaints. As a result of the collapse, over one-fourth of the nation’s wealth disappeared, creating a large base of lost and angry voters who were desperate for change of any kind. As Eisner noted, these are the people who voted for Trump.
“Trump voters, in the primaries… had a greater sense of vulnerability,” Eisner said. “People are extraordinarily sensitive to the possibility of loss…. The reality is that all change leaves some victims.”
This sense of hopeless, pervasive fear that pervades liberal and conservative communities alike can explain, in part, a turn toward populist politics in recent years. From Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party and Trump campaign, there is mobilization through appeals to fear and insecurity.
“[Populism] is ideologically amorphous,” Eisner said. “If you go back and listen to people going to Tea Party events and people going to Occupy, they have very common complaints. They’re at different points in the life cycle, many times, so a lot of Tea Party people are older, so it’s a different set of vulnerabilities…but they have this real sense that the system is not responsive.”
As one student noted, Trump is a polarizing figure despite his inability to align with either of the established poles. Instead, his divisive rhetoric has more of a populist tinge.
“When you look at Donald Trump, I think he appeals to a lot of people who are frightened,” Eisner said. “I don’t think he appeals that much on an ideological level. It’s hard to find anything in him that’s either conservative or consistent.”
Inconsistency, on Trump’s part and on that of his voters, was addressed in response to a question posed by Korn.
“What do you think, in general, about the purported switch, the partisan realignment from the traditional big-government, small-government argument to the open-closed, or isolationist-globalist argument?” Korn asked.
What people theoretically want and what they actually need do not always match up, according to Eisner.
“As with a lot of things, the idea of free trade and protectionism seem much more attractive as symbols than they do when people think in reality, and I think the same is true about big government,” he said. “If you’ve been watching these town halls that Republicans are facing as they go back… [they] are the same people who were carrying signs in the Tea Party movement years earlier saying, ‘Get the government’s hands off my Medicare.’ How does that work?”
In an era of seemingly endless fake news, Eisner also responded to a question about finding reliable information. He recommended looking directly at sources of data, in addition to reading a variety of sources of all partisan leanings. In reputable papers such as the New York Times (jokingly referred to as the “failing” New York Times), news sections are fairly unbiased.
“If you go to the New York Times, there’s a pretty good firewall between the editorials and the editorial board [and the News section],” Eisner said.
Eisner ended the forum with some words of bipartisan wisdom.
“Look for unsafe spaces,” he advised. “They’re the best.”
The next installation of the series, “Trump’s Foreign Policy,” which features guest speaker Associate Professor of Government Douglas Foyle, will be held on March 2 in the Public Affairs Center Room 104.