The State of Our Union Sucks
The bipartisan (if shouty!) embrace of big-government nationalism ensures our populist moment won't end any time soon.
It was only a matter of time before the still-ascendant national conservative bloc within the Republican Party would begin noticing out loud that President Joe Biden has been embracing some of the very policies they've been using to differentiate themselves from your father's GOP: mercantilistic trade, subsidies for strategic U.S. manufacturing, incoherent belligerence toward Beijing, crabby attacks on Big Tech, and—yes!—protection of old-age entitlement programs.
"I was texting with [Chronicles magazine writer Pedro L. Gonzalez]," Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk tweeted late last night, "and we both agree Biden's speech was, surprisingly, kind of… MAGA? It sounds strange, but it's true. Biden appropriated themes from the nationalist movement and laced them into his speech."
Added New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat: "Biden just gave a State of the Union speech whose key themes and most enthusiastic riffs could have been lifted—albeit with more Bidenisms and fewer insults—from Trump's populist campaign."
Whether Biden lifted from Trump and his back-filling ideologists or whether the populist right has just learned from the trad-left the electoral joys of industrial policy and demagoguing Social Security is a question for historians, or at least those handy with Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man memes.
But the effects of this ecstatic-if-tumultuous policy embrace on the rest of us will now stretch out indefinitely into the future, more likely to be halted only by external shock rather than by any major-party spade-work to prepare for utterly predictable, self-inflicted policy failure. Our long (and global) populist moment now looks more like an era.
On the governance front, we should expect not just status-quo extensions of Social Security and Medicare but attempts to expand them. Until a decade or so from now, when either taxes will have to be increased, or benefits will be hit with an automatic 20 percent haircut, because we were too busy "protecting" Social Security to actually fix its cruel demographic arithmetic.
Annual federal spending, which was around $2 trillion at the turn of the millennium, then nearly $3 trillion under George W. Bush, ratcheted up to the mid-3s by Barack Obama, yanked above $4 trillion by Donald Trump, and then hoisted above $6 trillion by the Trump/Biden response to COVID-19, will likely treat that latest level as a baseline, asserting the federal government's permanent ahistorical claim to one-quarter of the country's Gross Domestic Product.
Those deficit-spending binges require massive amounts of debt. Let's see, are there any bad outcomes associated with that? "High and rising federal debt makes the economy more vulnerable to rising interest rates and, depending on how that debt is financed, rising inflation," the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) presciently warned in 2019. Last year, while updating its long-term forecasts in the wake of coronavirus spending, the CBO opined that unless current spending trajectories change, "The likelihood of a fiscal crisis in the United States would increase. Specifically, the risk would rise of investors' losing confidence in the U.S. government's ability to service and repay its debt, causing interest rates to increase abruptly and inflation to spiral upward, or other disruptions." Oh.
To the applause of too many conservatives, Biden last night proposed a long list of Made in America malarkey, maybe-they'll-work-this-time price controls, and other regulatory micro-aggressions that will inexorably make both government and business more expensive. "Nearly all of President Biden's economic proposals," former congressman Justin Amash tweeted last night, "will increase the cost of goods and services on Americans. Government intervention, whatever its intention, almost always reduces competition and makes things more expensive, hitting those with the least the hardest."
A decade ago, Amash's critique would not have been uncommon in the Republican Party or Congress writ large, but now he's a voice in the wilderness. This fact gets obscured, particularly on the journalistic left, by the thrilling spectacle of Uncle Joe allegedly setting a cunning trap for insane GOP backbenchers. "Dark Brandon shows up at State of the Union, mops the floor with lost Republicans," went the cringe-inducing USA Today headline over a Rex Huppke piece.
Institutional journalism's continued descent into policing "platforms," dissing "objectivity," and bending facts in the name of defending democracy all but guarantees an almost comical inability to read the Republican room. Huppke couldn't contain his enthusiasm for Biden "backing the whole party into a corner and getting them to swear to protect Medicare and Social Security benefits," writing: "I've never seen anything like it in a State of the Union speech—they ran at him like a pack of lemmings and, with a wink and a grin, he politely directed them to the cliff."
Yeah, man, it's such a ninja maneuver to trick Republicans into agreeing with (checks notes) Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Kevin McCarthy!
Yet it's true, and significant, that several House Republicans acted like a bunch of rowdy middle schoolers Tuesday night, making Joe Wilson's old "You lie!" outburst at Obama in 2009 seem positively decorous by comparison. Part of modern populism is a deranged and deliberately provocative style. If I were a betting man, I'd wager we'll see during the 118th Congress the kind of open fisticuffs more associated with countries like South Africa, Kosovo, and Taiwan.
This is an awful development, one that threatens to become a vicious cycle. Biden was right to aspirationally assert last night that "There is no place for political violence in America." Still, he was characteristically wrong about presenting the problem as politically one-sided, reducing the deeply deranged attacker of Paul Pelosi to "an unhinged Big Lie assailant" and neglecting to even nod in the direction of Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R–La.) who was literally in the audience and survived a politically motivated assassination attempt in 2017.
Conservatives are too willing to react to Democratic and media imbalance by giving a whataboutist shrug; such a cowardly approach incentivizes even more brazen behavior in the future. Democrats and journalists, on the other hand, become so fixated on the lunacy of Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.) that they treat left extremism as more virtue than vice.
Biden has accused the GOP of wanting to "destroy the country," accused congressional Republicans of seeking to "crash the economy," accused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Rick Abbott of "playing politics with the lives of their citizens, especially children," and accused social media companies of flat-out "killing people." Like Trump calling the media or anyone else "enemies of the state," I'm sure this can be pleasurable, even cathartic, for some audiences.
But putting political rhetoric on a continuous war footing, particularly in a two-party system, is a recipe for mimetic escalation. So we'll likely have the worst of both worlds—bipartisan comity when it comes to constantly growing the size of government, but then bitter and occasionally violent competition over who gets to wield Leviathan against their most hated domestic enemies. The economy will underperform, trust in all ostensibly impartial institutions will sag, corruption will increase.
Republican fevers are such that plausible contenders for the GOP presidential nomination must demonstrate loudly that they are willing to weaponize government against wokes and other underminers. The Democratic reaction requires maximalist deployment of pejorative adjectives, open bribes for preferred constituents (college grads, teachers unions), and the permanent rejection of Econ 101.
It is, in other words, the perfect time to touch grass instead of obsess over national politics and to start looking for escape hatches from the applied irrational populism that surrounds us. The state of our union has sucked since at least 2015, and it's hard to imagine it unsucking anytime soon.