27 August, 2009

Max Baucus and party discipline

Yglesias and others have been talking a lot recently about the discrepancy of party discipline between the Republicans and the Democrats. This is nothing new - the Bush administration, for all of its other incompetencies, proved quite capable of whipping the Republican caucus into line (with the major exception of immigration reform), and they never had close to 60 votes in the Senate. I shudder to think of if they had.

Take the health care debate. Chuck Grassley, despite being from a state that overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama, is much more terrified of upsetting the Republican leadership than his constituents or the Administration. Democrats on the other hand, have winners like Max Baucus, Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad who will bend over backwards for Bush tax cuts but think nothing of flagrantly thumbing their noses at the leadership of their own party.

And sure, they may be personally dispicable human beings, but at bottom it is a problem of incentives. Republican deviants face well funded primary challengers and punishments like losing a prime committee chairmanship, whereas Democrats face none of those things. This is not just bad for Democrats, it is bad for small-d democracy by magnifying the influence of one ideological tendency far beyond its popular support. One of my poli-sci professors liked to say that a healthy democracy requires Stalinist political parties - because parties cannot effectively transfer the will of the electorate into coherent action without strict discipline. And I think this is a major reason why Congress is among our least respected institutions. People can't see how the policy preferences they voted for translate into effective lawmaking. Because it doesn't. Partly because the Senate is really poorly organized, but probably equally as much because the biggest political party in our system can't get its shit together.

Latin America (along with some other parts of the developing world) is a great demonstration of this at the extreme. The extreme lack of party organization and internal discipline endemic to Latin American political systems has led to the extreme volatility and often breakdown of governing coalitions, which leads to military intervention or, more often nowadays, the total inability of the legislature to pass or enact any meaningful legislation, the people taking to the streets, the extra-legal replacement of the president, etc. Thankfully we're not there yet, but this kind of thing is still a serious problem for us.


Cassady said...

This may be an ill-formed thought, but I'm not sure I agree that democracy as a form of governance requires uber-strict party discipline.

I think such discipline is useful to a party--as your example of the Bush regime all-too-aptly points out. That that discipline is the necessary vehicle for the will of the people I don't think follows. The people vote for representatives that most closely align with their views on a few policy points--whichever turn out to be the big handful during a particular election. Those views will not necessarily fit within the strict discipline of neocon party agenda or a more decidedly progressive platform. The individual representative or Senator may come on board with the party as particular points line up with his/her personal ideas and the expressed ideas of their constituents--unless of course there are heady consequences to not following the party line to a T, as you show.

Now, in this case I think we aren't seeing the will of the electorate coming through clearly, exactly because of toolbags like Baucus, Grassley, and Conrad. I just think that this vision of discipline can actually be a hinderance to the actual process of democracy by creating a legislative body that is less beholden to their constituents than to a particular party.

Imagine a world where the two strictly disciplined major parties sit respectively far to the right and left, but the majority of the electorate holds some progressive ideas--in the social arena, say--and some more conservative ideas--economically, for contrast. I think the end result would be a too-drastic shifting from left to right and back and forth for the actual will of the people to come fully to the surface.

Cassady said...

I think I see the other point that you're making with this line of thought. The splintering of factions within a particular party weakens the whole side by splitting their adherents across several parties and dividing what would have otherwise been a majority.

So, while discipline makes for effective lawmaking in the sense that things get done more quickly--to tie this in with my previous point--I still don't think it means that the actual will of the people is what ends up being legislated.