Thomas Edsall’s The Age of Austerity, Reviewed

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 16 2012 7:00 AM

Partisans, Reviewed

A new book suggests we can’t understand the downturn without looking at the pitched battles going on in Washington.

Tea Party protest.
The left's enthusiasm for President Obama in 2008 was followed by the launch of the Tea Party on the right

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

 Perhaps a publishing boom will replace the construction bust? The financial crisis of 2007 and subsequent labor market malaise has spawned scores of books. But even the best and most popular of these—Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, David Wessell’s In Fed We Trust, Simon Johnson’s 13 Bankers —don’t seem to take partisan politics seriously. The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics by veteran political reporter Thomas Edsall, suggests that’s a mistake.

Writers both friendly and hostile to the banking establishment have focused on the continuity at some high levels of policymaking. Ben Bernanke has stayed on as top central banker; Timothy Geithner slid from the New York Fed to the Treasury after Obama’s inauguration; TARP was a bipartisan collaboration between Nancy Pelosi and George W. Bush, continued by his successor. Various former investment bankers have shuffled in and out of office in Washington. Lost or marginalized in these tales is the extraordinary partisan political mobilization of the past several years.

Yet these have been wild times in American politics.Consider the unprecedented enthusiasm unleashed among younger voters by the Obama campaign, or unexpected Democratic wins in North Carolina and Virginia. These events of 2008 were followed by a campaign of extraordinary legislative obstruction by congressional Republicans,the passage of the most significant expansion of the welfare state in 45 years, the intense mobilization of the Tea Party, the overwhelming Republican sweep of the 2010 midterms, and a subsequent campaign to scale back the size and scope of government that’s already slashed a record quantity of public sector jobs.   

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Everyone knows this, of course, but those shelves full of financial-crisis books give it short shrift. Yet America’s inability to bounce back from adverse economic shocks is clearly linked to the paralysis and polarization of the political system. Efforts to understand the one without the other are doomed.

As an analysis of the politics of the present day, The Age of Austerity is an impressive synthesis of reporting and political science. Eschewing the kind of personality-driven trivia that constitutes so much campaign reporting, Edsall digs deep into the underlying social, economic, and even psychological drivers of America's increasingly polarized political coalitions.

Edsall describes a conservative movement of the socially dominant—relatively wealthy, white, and elderly—facing off against what demographics suggest will be an ever-expanding alliance of blacks, Hispanics, the young, the poor, and social-service providers. This right coalition stood, superficially at least, on the verge of being routed in January 2009. Instead, a mix of canny legislative strategies, Democratic errors, and sharp recession has put them back in the game. Now, Edsall writes, “Republicans see the window closing on the opportunity to dismantle the liberal state.” They are determined to give it what they see as one last shot before they’re “forced to accommodate changing demographics as proponents of big government gain traction.”

Economic hardship is not just bad for incumbent politicians' priorities, Edsall argues. "The politics of austerity” mean that “reasoned debates over not only immigration but a host of other issues—from the deficit to entitlement spending to U.S. foreign policy—are trumped by fear.”

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