07 September, 2009

Political parties and democracy

Cassady's comments on my previous post opens a bit of a can of worms, so I wanted to explain a bit more in depth what I'm talking about. So sorry for the political sciencey-ness ahead of time. Parties are often maligned along much the same lines that Cassady expresses: that they put the interests of a national entity ahead of the local constituents, and that parties' attempts at internal discipline are draconian attempts to squash the local "will of the people".

We have to be careful when using phrases like "will of the people". The people don't have a single will; as he points out, they have a very fractured set of opinions that overlap in various and often contradictory ways. That is why representative democracy chooses surrogates, as it were, to do the governing in the name of the people. Most people don't follow, understand, or care about the broad swath of particular policy choices. They care very deeply about several, perhaps, and have vague opinions on the others that could be swayed by a charismatic pol or the success of a program they thought would fail.

That fundamental fact - the vagueness of the "will of the people" - is why no modern democracy functions without political parties to simplify or distill, as it were, the essence of a governing philosophy or approach. The exact ways that parties work depends mostly on two factors: the type of legislature (presidential v parliamentary) and the number of parties in the system (a two-party system or a more-than-two-party-system - leaving aside the decidely undemocratic one party systems.) Political scientists have all sorts of debates about why a polity (a jargon word for a political community) evolves a certain number of parties, but its enough to know how they work once established.

In a poly-party system, parties work a bit more along the lines that Cassady likes: they are smaller, more focused on a particular issue or set of issues, and thus more responsive to smaller changes in the will of the electorate, or in their particular slice of the electorate. Usually there are several major parties - like Labor (and now Kadima) and Likud on the left and right in Israel - that can't by themselves form a governing majority, and which must thus form coalitions with a constellation of smaller, usually more radical or single-issue parties. If this kind of arrangment happens in a parliamentary system, which it usually does, then there is a built-in incentive for party, as well as coalition discipline: if the ruling coalition loses a major vote in parliament, then the parliament must immediately call new elections to form a new coalition - the point being, that if a coalition can't pass major legislation, then they have no right being the ruling coalition. Since the least favorite thing for politicians is to risk losing their seat sooner rather than later, there is a strong incentive for the coalition to avoid becoming deadlocked, and for painful compromise to occur.

But in a presidential, two party system such as ours, things are much different. (There are other parties, but they don't hold actual seats in the legislature. "Independent" doesn't count because its not an actual party that can raise money, mobilize voters, develop a platform, etc.) In these systems, parties are almost always competing for the "middle", since they have the extremes of left and right more or less locked down. This is in contrast to multi-party coalitions, which actually end up responding more to the extremes, because the centrist parties need the support of minority parties to govern. To go back to Israel, in the recent elections the centrist Kadima party won the most total votes, but they were not able to form a governing coalition under would-be Prime Minister Tzipi Livni. The chance then passed to right-wing Likud, which was able to gain a majority largely by allying with the far, far right Yisrael Beiteinu party and making its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's Foreign Minister. Thus, to wield power, Likud has to pander to the most extreme elements in its coalition. In our two party system, the far left has no place to go, and so the real action happens at the "center": what will Max Baucus and Kent Conrad do? Can we lure Olympia Snowe to vote against her party again, as she did on the stimulus?

I make that point because Cassady mentioned that party discipline would lead to wild swings between left and right. But in a two party system, its very rare to see those swings because legislation is passed by bringing the centrists on board, and they aren't usually in the mood for wild swings.

Another point he made is that disciplining members that fail to get behind the party line is a betrayal of their local constituents. First of all, local constituents didn't just vote for a random person, they voted for a person who represented a political party and its platform - a person who was likely recruited, often trained, funded and supported with volunteers and campaign materials by a political party to advance its agenda. The local constituents also chose the party and the party invested in those constituents.

But I think its more illustrative to flip that complaint on its head. Instead of seeing it as an individual politician who is being coerced into abandoning his constituents wishes (if that is even what is going on), its just as valid to see it as a tiny minority of politicians betraying the agenda that was robustly chosen by a majority of the American people. Why does Cassady - and many others - consider it the "will of the people" for a man like Max Baucus, who represents less than a million people, to face no consequences for thumbing his nose at a suite of reforms that was heartily approved in November by almost 70 million people, and more than 10 million more people than voted for his ideological opponent?

In other words, discipline is so important because without it, the will of the majority of the people that voted for a particular party is held hostage to the whims of several politicians representing a tiny minority of the electorate. Because so many votes - especially very important votes representing the core elements of a party's platform - are decided in a narrow window of maybe five or ten votes (in the Senate), if a party doesn't have some sort of levers to reward or punish its ideological outliers, the agenda will be de facto decided by a handful of the least representative politicians.

This would be true even if you had a relatively rational way of organizing your legislature. The Senate, however, is set up to amplify this problem, with its wildly disproportionate representation and its labyrinthine committee system that allows all sorts of random Senators to veto important legislation for no reason whatsoever. Added to that is the filibuster, which we have decided requires a supermajority for the passage of important legislation. Added to that is a two-house legislature and all the replicated committees. And added to that is an imbalance of discipline - the Republicans are an extremely disciplined party with painful consequences for those who step out of line on important issues. Unless the Democrats make some changes to increase discipline - to the Senate rules, to their internal rules, or hopefully both - the "will of the people" will continue to be undermined by the ability of a tiny minority to dictate the course of policy.

A good first step would be the abolition of the Senate - or perhaps simply its relegation to a purely ceremonial status.


Cassady said...

Imagine me giving the slow-clap of a man at a lecture who doesn't fully comprehend what was just thrown at him, but knows that it will wake him up with enlightenment later that night.

Plus, I love that you boldly espouse abolishing the Senate. From what I can tell, not a bad idea...

Elliot said...

Thanks? Unemployment is great for taking the time to try to put some of this down, and desperately try to make the bullshit I learned at sk00l relevant to the present predicament.

Cassady said...

Then I say to you "Bravo!"

You have executed your monologue with VIGAAAHHH!