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In an ‘Age of Austerity,’ How Scarce Resources Could Shape U.S. Politics

January 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a time of scarce resources, plans to cut deficits and reduce spending can develop into campaign issues. Judy Woodruff and Tom Edsall, a longtime Washington Post reporter who's now a New York Times columnist and journalism professor, discuss how austerity could shape and define American politics this election year and beyond.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, how scarce resources could shape and define American politics.

Judy Woodruff taped this conversation before her trip to Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The economy and battles over government spending in a time of belt-tightening are not only helping shape the 2012 presidential campaign. They’re also redefining American politics, and potentially the United States’ place in the world.

That’s the argument in a new book by former Washington Post political reporter Thomas Edsall. He’s now a professor of journalism at Columbia University. And he writes a column for The New York Times. The book is “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.”

And author Tom Edsall joins us now.

It’s good to see you. Thank you for being here.

THOMAS EDSALL, “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics”: Hi, Judy. Good to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If this book had a sound, Tom Edsall, it would be a siren or. . .


JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . an alarm bell.

Did you say a groan?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Because you are clearly worried where this country headed, where American politics is headed. What has you so concerned?

THOMAS EDSALL: Well, what’s happened, I think, in the past — really since the collapse, economic collapse, is that the country now is — has become dominated by the issue of debt and deficits.

And there is a serious problem in the long run over the rising cost of Medicare and perhaps some other entitlements. And this stuff has to be addressed over time. The result, though, has been to change the basic nature of American politics, from one in which you could have compromise with a growing economy, some people are going to get tax cuts, other people could get social programs, to one now it where it’s a zero sum or negative sum competition.

Somebody’s going to take a hit. It’s no longer a nice friendly game. It’s who’s going to get hurt. That makes for — we already had a polarized politics. When you add this notion that politics now is one not just of what can I get out of it, but what do I have to do to the other people to get what I want, that makes it a much nastier and much more hostile circumstance.

And I think the 2011 Congress basically affirmed much of this kind of character of politics. And the fight now is a much more serious and brutal fight over, basically, economics and how do you cut up a smaller and smaller pie.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You describe two very different sets of adversaries here in Republicans and Democrats. You see them as qualitatively different people. Is that what you’re saying?

THOMAS EDSALL: There’s a lot of evidence and there’s been a lot of study of the psychology, the values, the world outlook of conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans.

A lot of this has become more intense since the culture wars and the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. There’s been a real divide. And there is a different world view held by liberals and Democrats from that held by conservatives and Republicans. They’re not totally antithetical. They share many — they’re both human beings, but they put priorities on very different things.

Liberals are very concerned with compassion and fairness. Conservatives have what one person describes as a broader spectrum, but not as much focus on compassion and fairness, but also on issues of sanctity, of a different kind of fairness. Their opposition to affirmative action, for example, is a different kind of fairness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, you go so far as to say conservatives are willing to inflict harm. You’re pretty tough on conservatives.

From that standpoint, Tom Edsall, is this a partisan book?

THOMAS EDSALL: No, I don’t think so, although it’s going to be accused of that.

But, actually, the idea that conservatives are willing to inflict harm is not necessarily a criticism. If you are in a fight, and you’re fighting to protect what you have, being loyal to your own people is not necessarily a bad thing. If you and your family had to protect what your child is getting and what your husband and so forth — if they face serious threats of lost goods, in effect, you’re fighting for them, and, in fact, if that meant someone else had to get hurt, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

So to hear that as a fault is not really right, I don’t think. It’s a different value structure. Conservatives have a much stronger in-group sense and out-group sense. And they see the in group as one to be protected. You can see this in Congress, where they are protecting their tax cuts, they’re protecting what they want.

And they see the out group as an adversary, which they are much more willing to cut benefits, for example, for poor people and for those who are not those within the conservative Republican constellation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you describe conservative Republicans as almost better equipped, better innately able to fight what for they believe in, in this age of — time of scarcity than are Democrats.


There is a much more — and I don’t mean this pejoratively. There is a stronger natural instinct among conservatives to see contests in zero sum terms, that there are going to be losers and winners. Therefore, I want to get into this and be sure that I am the winner and that people that are around me are winners.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the consequence of that is what? Because conservatives say, that’s a good thing, because they think spending does need to be cut, we need to unleash capitalism, the free markets to work their will.

THOMAS EDSALL: But this atmosphere of scarcity and austerity that the country in and the long-term debt concerns is an ideal environment for the conservatives, and it’s a very rough one for liberals.

Liberals do not see the world — they see much more of the world as a unity, as one, and that everyone shares. They don’t like to inflict harm on anybody particularly, so that they’re not really prepared for this kind of fight over limited — and not just limited, but diminished resources, diminishing resources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see as the — as at stake here? You have a pretty pessimistic outlook here at the end about where the country’s headed. You talk about a period of decline, potentially, for the United States?

THOMAS EDSALL: Well, I think that this is — this whole conflict and the polarization we’re in right now has limited the ability of this country to deal with what are very serious problems.

And I think the view that a number of economists hold, which is that at the moment this country really ought to be taking advantage of the fact that money is virtually free. You can borrow money at almost zero cost, and there ought to be more investment right now. But you have to combine that with a long-term plan to reduce the deficit.

But, at the moment, there has to be — instead of that, we are frozen, basically, in an austerity mentality, much like Europe. And I think that is a pretty constrictive one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in just a few words, Tom Edsall, what do you see that could turn that around, that could get the United States back on a path toward less polarization, and seeing a way through this current economic crisis?

THOMAS EDSALL: Well, I don’t think there’s a real solution in a sense. I think we have been through a 40-year-long upheaval, with the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, all these things, and that the process of going through this is going to take some more time.

A lot of it now has to do with demography, with the rise of the Hispanic vote, increasing numbers of single voters. The Republicans, I think, right now see their strength, the conservative coalition that has been sort of a default majority for much of the past almost half-century as really threatened by these demographic changes.

And they want to win a big one in 2012, use that election to take the White House, Congress and the Senate, and try to enact as much as they can along the lines of the Paul Ryan budget, get that in place. And then if things sort of fall apart for them, they will have the law in place, and it becomes much harder for a new, more liberal majority to change things, because a minority can block so much in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds like a long and protracted battle.

THOMAS EDSALL: Well, but great for reporting.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But great for reporting.

Tom Edsall, “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics,” great to have you with us.

THOMAS EDSALL: Thank you, Judy. Good to be with you.