Noticed by Stanley Dundee:

2020-10-24: The Ratchet Effect, by Michael J. Smith

In my long journey from complacent low-information liberal Democrat to disgusted independent (extremist, according to my spouse), a few key writings lighted the way. One of them was an online book-in-progress by Michael J. Smith, entitled Stop Me Before I Vote Again. Although Smith no longers links to the unfinished book from the front page of his sporadically updated blog, the contents and (completed) chapters of the book can still be enjoyed. Smith asserts copyright for 2005; I probably read the online chapters later, perhaps around 2010.

Several years ago I began to promote a metaphor for US politics involving a ratchet: when republicans hold the government, the ratchet engages and the screws that bind the muppets tighten ever futher (austerity, precarity, wage deflation, powerlessness, etc.; i.e. oversuck). When democrats return to power, there's a tick-tick-tick sound as the ratchet spins in reverse, an illusion of relief, but no pressure is actually released; the screws do not loosen. Finally, when the ratchet has been repositioned, the republicans return to power and the ratchet re-engages, and the tightening advances again.

At the time, I was unsure whether I'd invented the analogy; I certainly wanted to think so, but I had my doubts. Of course, years and years earlier I'd read Smith, had been profoundly influenced by that work, but the details had been buried in my memory by dumpster loads of new information and opinion. Thanks (as so often) to Lambert at Naked Capitalism, I was recently reacquainted with Smith's work and I discovered the likely source of my relatively recent inspiration:

The ratchet is a simple, ubiquitous, ancient bit of machinery. . . . What the ratchet does is permit rotation in one direction but not in the other. . . . The American political system, since at least 1968, has been operating like a ratchet, and both parties — Republicans and Democrats — play crucial, mutually reinforcing roles in its operation. The electoral ratchet permits movement only in the rightward direction. The Republican role is fairly clear; the Republicans apply the torque that rotates the thing rightward. The Democrats' role is a little less obvious. The Democrats are the pawl. They don't resist the rightward movement — they let it happen — but whenever the rightward force slackens momentarily, for whatever reason, the Democrats click into place and keep the machine from rotating back to the left.

Careful readers will note that I switched the sense of the analogy from that of Smith: I had the ratchet engaged to increase pressure on the muppets. By contrast, Smith (and, recently, Peter Daou) have the ratchet spinning freely to the right, pulled by the republicans, while democrats serve (as the ratchet pawl) to block movement back to the left. Ratchets can work in either configuration depending on the application; readers are free to adopt either sense, both of which convey the same fundamental message.

Let's return to Michael J. Smith for the last word:

The Democrats depend on the Republicans to frighten their constituencies and keep them in the Democratic corral. It's not too strong to say that in effect, they encourage the Republicans to play the bad cop. The Republicans, conversely, need a bogeyman to energize their activist base — a Godless, urban, liberal bogeyman who will tempt good Christian boys into sodomitical vice and take away people's guns. So far, the relationship between the party narratives is symmetrical: each is Bad Cop to the other's Good Cop. But there are some crucial asymmetries, and it's these asymmetries that drive the ratchet effect. One of the most important asymmetries is that while the Republicans can be as ferocious as they please on matters relating to culture — sex, religion, and so on — the Democrats are not prepared to be ferocious on the only possible counterweight to culture, which is . . . class. In fact, not only are the Democrats unwilling to be ferocious, they're unwilling to raise the topic at all. It's the Great Unmentionable of American politics.