Saturday, July 1, 2017

Party time!

I read a comment today arguing that we needed to get beyond the mindless "rah-rah us-against-them game" of the nonfunctional two-party system.

I half agree.

The Democratic Party has for decades been more sensitive to the needs of high finance than to the situation of the median American, and it has in that respect been a "kinder, gentler" version of the Republican Party. And there is certainly an element of people who identify with one party or the other lambasting a particular behavior when done by someone from the "other side," then turning around and excusing similar behavior from one of "their own."

Another comment today (don't remember where) observed that Trump has mobilized the progressive base like nothing before. And I remembered reading in 2009 about Rahm Emanuel chewing out and slapping down progressive activists, essentially asking/ordering a "stand down" by people who should have been, in theory, his allies.

The best defense of Emanuel's position (presumably sanctioned by Obama) was that the activists were going to gum up the works and interfere with the actual work of legislating. But at the same time, Obama's election was skillfully used by regressive forces to mobilize the Tea Party. So while Democratic activists' enthusiasm was being frustrated, Republicans' energy was being stoked.

Emanuel's decision was, at best, political malpractice, hurting his own cause by undercutting its support. More likely, the cause of progressive activists was not the same as the cause of Rahm Emanuel, who was more interested in doing things for the party's big donors.

So yes, the Democrats as a party are too beholden to some of the same interests that are served by the GOP.

At the same time, I don't have much patience with the claim that there's no meaningful difference between the parties.

The median Democratic Senator or Representative is trying to build on the imperfect progress of Obamacare to make a better system.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure there are any elected Republicans at the national level who want to keep what progress Obamacare brought - the ones who are balking at voting for Mitch McConnell's bill (like the ones who voted "no" on Paul Ryan's version in the House) think it goes too far, but still think there should be reductions in how much health care less-wealthy Americans can actually get. And those are the nice ones; the other Republican "no" votes are from people who somehow think the bills on the floor leave too many people still having health care.

A GOP president with a GOP Senate have placed on the court a heartless man who thinks a truck driver should have frozen to death rather than break company policy, and who just invited a challenge to court's recognition of marriage equality. And they've got more candidates like that lined up. Whatever failings we would find with the hypothetical nominations of a President H. Clinton, I'm confident that millions of people's lives would have been better with her picks, approved by a Democratic Senate, than with what we've gotten and will continue to get from the reality we're actually living in.

Regarding parties, what I learned way back in school was that the Founders thought that parties (or "factions" as they called them) were highly undesirable. Elected representatives should look at issues on their merits, rather than falling into line with their party, and voters should cast their ballots for the individual they consider best qualified to represent them.

But in practice, parties always show up.

My economist's mentality leaps from that repeated experience to the supposition that there's some kind of efficiency about parties.

Just because something is "efficient" doesn't necessarily mean it's desirable. It just means that it gets certain things done reasonably well.

And what parties do reasonably well is enable voters to be less engaged in politics.

In the absence of parties, Joe or Jane Voter has to keep abreast of lots of different issues and take the effort to form an opinion on them. Then they have to pay attention to the actual candidates.

Parties allow a short cut. Once I come to think (or feel) that Party A is closer to me than Party B, voting becomes a lot simpler.

I don't advocate for such disengagement, but I see it, and in this respect parties are a "natural" phenomenon, since they enable a level of disengagement that many people prefer.

Parties also provide a kind of service on the policy end, not just in the voting booth. It may be a sort of platonic ideal to assemble a different coalition regarding each item that comes before the legislature, but it takes time and trust. A party structure is an efficient way for a legislator to gain confidence that some meaningful part of what he/she wants will get passed, in exchange for a vote on the larger party program.

It's a worthy effort to push back against mindless partisan identification, but the existence of parties isn't just some sign of our fallen condition compared to the idyllic past. They come about by the forces of something like social ecology.

Just like dealing with pests in a garden, we'll have more success limiting the harm done by parties if we understand the forces that bring them about.


  1. Hm, interesting comment about political parties as creating voter efficiency. This seems somewhat true, allowing people to disengage. However, I wonder about the counterargument, that feeling a part of something larger, a "party" brings a certain engagement from people who would not have otherwise been involved.

    I'm also wondering what the "efficiency" argument says about 2-party systems versus a more multi-party approach. It seems like we can also imagine differently structured voting systems which allow for parties that are much more efficient than our current good-versus-evil dichotomy, allowing voters to align with a more specific party without feeling that their vote will be "wasted" if it doesn't go to one of the dominant ones.

    1. I'll see if I get back to your larger question.

      In the meantime, your comment about engagement reminded me of something I wrote in 2011 while in Prague. Towards the end of a rather long piece on European liberalism in the Czech context, I have a quote from one of the thinkers of what was then the main liberal party in the Czech Republic:

      "In 1989 people thought that what democracy would look like would be that they wouldn’t know or hear too much about the government, because for the previous 40 years they’d heard about it from dawn to dusk. So one goal of the post-November [1989] developments has been the creation of a liberal government. That means a government that carries something out without annoying its citizens, and the citizens have a good life."

      In other words, his ideal is NOT an engaged citizenry, but a passive populace that shows up at the polls every so often to choose one group or another to run the place. People presumably should vote without knowing too much about what the work of government actually entails.

      The full piece is here:

    2. Ah, thanks! I think most democracies are supposed to run on a "semi-engaged" citizenry. You vote every so often but most of the time leave it up to people who seem to know what they are doing. That's why for relatively well-off white liberals, the Obama years were so cushy. It seemed like he had everything under control. Nowadays, people like you are calling Faso's office every day. That seems like over-engagement. :)

    3. Yes to your idea of a democracy (or more specifically, a democratic republic) running on a semi-engaged citizenry.

      That's the idea I was getting at here:

      I don't call Faso's office every day - though I certainly call far more frequently than I've ever called a representatives office before.

    4. Nice post--I remember that one. I have a tiny bit of wiggle room when I said "people like you" are calling Faso every day. Cheers!