Saturday, April 7, 2007

Parties and profiteers

British historian A.J.P. Taylor has a wonderful essay that I consider essential reading for understanding the behavior of political parties. No, it's not about parties; it's about imperialism. Here's a key excerpt:
The annual cost to Germany of administering the Cameroons was five times as great as her total trade with the colony, and much the same applied to other countries.... In almost every case, European countries spent a great deal of money in acquiring colonies which proved of little economic value.

These arguments, though true, are also irrelevant. They treat European countries as communities in which policies were conducted for the benefit of all, much as companies are conducted, or supposed to be, for the benefit of the shareholders. This was not so. Benefit went to the few who determined policy and shaped public opinion; it was of no concern to them that this was achieved at great loss to the many.... [W]
hen we are told that imperialism was not profitable, we can reply ‘It was to the imperialists.’
This translates well to the study of political parties. A thriving two-party system provides, I believe, a net benefit for a nation, offering accountability and a way for the public to be competently involved in elections. Any individual party, however, is controlled by a cadre of extremists that is trying to get something out of the government. These extremists have to be at least somewhat mindful of public opinion if they want to attain and retain power, but the general public is mighty inattentive; you can get away with quite a bit. What's more, what these extremists want isn't necessarily even good for the nation or even good for their party - it's good for them.

Taylor's essay helps us understand President Bush and the cadre that put him in office. It's safe to say that most Americans think that Bush's policies have not been good for the country. But have you noticed that those policies haven't been particularly good for the Republican Party, either? They benefit a pretty small subset of party elites, who got most of what they wanted when the public wasn't paying attention - during the long post-9/11 period when Bush's approval ratings were unusually high and nobody felt like criticizing him.

Parties can serve a democracy well. Indeed, as E. E. Schattschneider said, democracy is impossible without them. But in order for parties to serve us, we have to keep an eye on them. Artie Samish, a very colorful, if corrupt, lobbyist for California's alcohol bottling industry in the 1930s and 40s, was once asked what it would take to get rid of him. "People must take more interest in the men they elect," was his reply.

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