Why Are Senators So Cynical and Immoral?
Matt Yglesias is still puzzling through "the high degree of cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics.” The question isn't the mechanism: Desire for reelection provides plenty of explanation for why people make awful compromises to ensure their safety. The question, rather, is why people are so interested in being reelected. Yglesias writes:
If some weird situation somehow resulted in me becoming a United States Senator, I would spend six years making trouble, having fun, and trying to do the right thing. Probably I’d lose a primary or something since I wasn’t bothering to raise money or campaign. Then I’d write a book about it.
I think it’d be a blast. And I think that’d also be the totally intuitive way to handle the situation. Obviously that’s also why I never will be a powerful politician. Instead, we’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power. But it still strikes me as a very odd mentality.
I've got three hypotheses on this:
1) Very few senators are simply appointed. Instead, they're people who have managed to be reelected in a bunch of other jobs, like congressman, or governor. As such, the path to being a senator selects for extremely high levels of reelection desire. Otherwise, the individuals wouldn't have risen high enough to contest the job in the first place. They would have lost their second run for mayor or something.
2) Senators are very egotistical. They know they may not be making appropriate choices. But they justify that by saying that their defeat will result in someone much, much, worse. A guy like Ben Nelson can plausibly tell himself that his concessions ensure the presence of a reliable vote for Harry Reid to remain the majority leader. If he were to begin supporting a more liberal agenda, he would quickly lose, and though his Republican replacement wouldn't be as galling to liberals, he or she would be much worse for liberalism. Viewed that way, these concessions are a tremendous victory for progressivism.
3) Maybe there's less cynicism and immorality than Matt thinks. When we imagine senators making unsavory compromises, it's usually a fairly small slice in the center. The basic tenets of health-care reform can count on a good 50+ votes. At least 30 or 40 of those are solid, fairly progressive senators who never get dragged into conversations like this. These are your Barbara Mikulskis, your Maria Cantwells, your Herb Kohls. But a couple folks with relatively unsafe seats or uncommonly weak principles get all the attention because their votes can't be taken for granted. This is accepted behavior because there's not a lot that can be done about it, but it's not typical behavior. If every member of the Senate demanded as many concessions and as much stroking as Ben Nelson, nothing would ever get done.
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