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.
27 August, 2009
posted by Elliot at 5:58 PM