Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Beyond Ideology

As Ezra Klein notes, it is rather ironic to find Republicans rejoicing over yesterday's U.S. District Court ruling that the individual mandate on health insurance is unconstitutional.  After all, the individual mandate was an integral part of Republican health reform proposals for years, and was championed by the likes of Chuck Grassley, Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, the Heritage Foundation, and others.  Isn't this GOP schadenfreude rather hypocritical?

Well, sure, but this is hardly atypical, for either party.  Frances Lee makes this point abundantly clear in her recent book Beyond Ideology, which I highly recommend.  Her thesis is that party polarization in the U.S. Senate is fueled by, but not solely a function of, the increasing ideological distance between the two parties.  Lee breaks down roll call votes by subject and finds that the party caucuses in the Senate are at least as divided on non-ideological issues as they are on ideological ones.  The parties quickly reverse stances on a wide range of issues depending upon who's in the majority and who controls the White House.  Seemingly non-controversial, non-ideological issues like openness, transparency, anti-corruption, and anti-waste quickly become battlegrounds for the parties.  The individual mandate is just another piece of evidence supporting Lee's thesis.

Lee doesn't really dwell on this in the book, but she's providing lots of evidence for the criticism that pundits and members of the public regularly direct at Congress -- that many of things politicians argue about are not about substance at all, but are rather about who's up and who's down.  This really is bickering.  Senators really do switch positions on issues just to make the president or members of the other party look bad.

Yet even if such bickering is hypocritical and convenient, there is still considerable democratic value to it.  If the president and the majority party in Congress are proposing a massive overhaul of a large chunk of the economy, the public has a right to hear critiques of it.  The health reform bill may well have been the best possible legislation on the topic with any real chance of passage, but that doesn't mean it was perfect, and people should know both the pluses and minuses of its features.  Only the minority party has any real incentive to bring those arguments up.  Similarly, only the minority party has any real incentive to investigate the president's nominees and appointees.  Sure, this creates a climate of distrust, but it also has a better chance of rooting out and preventing malfeasance than bipartisan harmony does.

6 comments:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Is it so far fetched to imagine a political process where it was possible to build consensus because individuals weren't flipping sides based upon who was sponsoring legislation and who was in power at the moment? Or a process where only the controversial parts of legislation (e.g. extending the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250K) were held up by legislative wrangling, while the consensus parts (e.g. extending the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $350K) were decoupled from that and quickly made into the law?

Surely, this is not a problem so profound that no society in the history of the planet has managed to come up with better alternative.

Seth said...

Is it so far fetched to imagine a political process where it was possible to build consensus because individuals weren't flipping sides based upon who was sponsoring legislation and who was in power at the moment?

Yes.

Ben JB said...

Only the minority party has any real incentive to bring those arguments up.

On the other hand, the minority party may have completely other reasons for stalling decisions with specious arguments. Say, for instance, that your one goal is making sure the president from the other party is a one-term president (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40007802/ns/politics-decision_2010/)--and suddenly it seems like a perfectly good use of time to talk about non-existent death panels.

Cynic said...

Only the minority party has any real incentive to bring those arguments up. Similarly, only the minority party has any real incentive to investigate the president's nominees and appointees.Well, sure. But at best, that's a defense of partisan rhetoric, and of partisan debate. And it's a fairly weak one, too. If you're going to argue, as you do in this post, that the positions adopted by legislators on most issues reflect partisan maneuvering rather than ideological or philosophical principles, why should you expect the general public to behave differently? In other words, even if they're making valid criticisms of nominees or bills, there's little reason to believe that critiques offered in such a baldly partisan fashion will be objectively weighed by a disinterested public against the offsetting merits. To the contrary. Voters are highly likely to react in the same manner as their elected officials. It's not at all clear, in other words, that this sort of debate makes good policy outcomes more likely.

And even if it did, you'd still have a huge problem. You've mounted a defense of polarized debate. But relatively few people object to vigorous debate. What's raising hackles are the attempts to circumvent the outcomes of such vigorous debates. The objections are lodged, the votes are counted. And then, for purely partisan reasons, the minority obstructs the will of the majority. Or, if it can't prevent the vote from taking place, it goes to the courts. And it seeks in that venue to have laws struck down. And that's destructive. Why? Because although politicians display a remarkable degree of flexibility and a capacity for mid-stream reversals, the courts tend to be more constrained. If the courts circumscribe the commerce clause in this instance, when the GOP regains a majority, it will have stripped itself of its ability to reverse course and implement an individual mandate. Its short-term partisan maneuvering will turn out to have longterm consequences.

So I'm not sure that you can have it both ways here. If debates are about partisanship more than principle, then even vigorous debates have limited benefits. And when we move from debate toward outright obstruction of the majority, even those benefits vanish.

KenS said...

Cynic's last point is a good one. The benefits of partisanship that you point out have to be tempered when there is divided government or supermajority rules that let the opposition not only critique policy but actually make it worse. The GOP did not just point out weaknesses of health reform--their obstructionism actually made health reform worse than it would have been had the Senate operated under majority rule.

Seth said...

I believe Cynic and KenS are discussing something slightly but importantly different from what I'm discussing. I'm focusing on arguments and the rationales that form them. They're discussing the minority's tools to subvert what the majority has decided. Those are two different things.

I agree that the minority should not be able to subvert what the majority has decided, as it undermines representative democracy at a very fundamental level. However, I don't really fault the minority party for using these tools. The filibuster, for example, is a pretty absurd and anti-majoritarian tradition, and the fact that it didn't used to be abused simply because senators felt it was inappropriate to abuse it just wasn't a really stable equilibrium. Indeed, I wouldn't think very much of a minority party that could stop an over-zealous majority but chose not to simply because We Don't Do That Sort of Thing Around Here.