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Getting beyond ideology


Will Wilkinson has an odd rejoinder to my claims that polarization is beginning to break our consensus-oriented political system. To Will, this is all about good-faith disagreement. "It is not really surprising," he says, "that Democrats and Republicans disagree about the policies." Those of us who'd like a more majoritarian system, he holds, "see opposing views as unworthy of respect."

Alrighty then. The actual disagreement here isn't about whether other views deserve respect. After all, removing the filibuster (and sundry other super-majoritarian checks) would ensure my views get run over when Republicans hold the majority. And my favored proposal, which would change the rules after a six-year lag, is as likely to benefit people I disagree with as people I agree with. Maybe likelier, given current political trends.

The disagreement here is whether, well, the problem is disagreement. It strains credulity to believe that every single member of the Republican Party that voted to create the deficit-financed Medicare drug program in 2003 disagreed with the deficit-improving, private-sector health-care expansion that cleared the Senate last month. Same goes for the Republican Party that lent a number of votes to the creation of Medicare and, for that matter, Social Security. And what about the unemployment insurance expansion that passed 97 to 0 after facing three successive Republican filibusters? And feel free to leave your examples of Democratic flip-flops in the comments. There are plenty.

My view is that understanding the United States Congress as an institution gripped by ideological competition is simply wrong. It's an institution gripped by electoral competition. The political scientist Frances Lee puts this particularly clearly in her new book, “Beyond Ideology.”

"Parties," she writes, "are institutions with members who have common political interests in winning elections and wielding power, not just coalitions of individuals with similar ideological preferences." According to her data, senators in 2004 are 63 percent more divided along party lines than senators in 1981. It's no coincidence that the rise in party-line voting has coincided with the ideological realignment of the parties. Now that the parties agree internally, they can focus their efforts on winning power.

As Lee argues, ideological explanations for congressional behavior are actually fairly recent. The graph atop this post comes from an analysis she ran on political science articles from 1910 to the present (looking at news articles shows a similar, albeit somewhat less striking, trend). Ideological concepts were barely mentioned in the first few decades. Instead, "party principles" were the common explanation for vote outcomes. Ideology emerged to explain conflicts between Southern Democrats and Northern Democrats. As Lee puts it, "the concept of ideology explained what party could not."

But the fissure that ideology was explaining -- an apartheid society in the Democrat-dominated South -- disappeared. The conservative Dixiecrats became Republicans. The parties agreed again. And party behavior reemerged. In 1994, Republicans scored a historic win by using the tools of minority obstruction (and a number of Democratic missteps and scandals) to turn the Democratic majority into a feckless failure. Good-faith disagreement would be hard-pressed to explain why Bob Dole ended up voting against two health-care compromise bills that he had written and co-sponsored. But the realization that a party that can't govern won't be rewarded at the polls explains it perfectly. If you're a Republican, substitute the Democratic decision to oppose Social Security reform outright rather than cut a deal they could live with for the previous anecdote.

And both parties, incidentally, were correct in their assessment of the electorate. Republicans won in 1994. Democrats won in 2006. And the beat goes on: Does anyone seriously doubt that Republicans are more likely to win in 2010 if they stop the Democrats from passing a big jobs bill in the next year than if they cooperate and get a tax cut-oriented bill that Barack Obama and the Democrats tout as a major accomplishment? Would the GOP's prospects brighten if 15 Senate Republicans voted for the health-care reform bill in return for capping the employer tax exclusion, reforming the medical malpractice system and killing the public option? Is there real skepticism that voters reward success? Or that party behavior is primarily driven by short-term political incentives? If so, I'd like to hear the argument.

In the absence of that argument, we're left with a couple of basic questions. First, can the political system work under polarized conditions? I'd say not. With 60 votes in the Senate, Democrats were forced into a lowest-common denominator health-care plan. They couldn't make the sort of hard decisions that would have left even one vulnerable Democrat strongly opposed to the bill. Good luck on cost control under those conditions. And if Democrats go down to 55 votes in 2010, they won't be able to do anything at all -- at least unless it involves the reconciliation process.

Second, does the government need to work? Will, a libertarian, might say it's better if the government can't really act. I look at reports like this one, which shows long-term debt hitting 300 percent of GDP by 2050, or unemployment numbers like the ones we're seeing now, and disagree. I look at California, and it's pretty clear that a government that can't solve its problems when they're manageable really can't solve them when they're crises.

But I guess people could argue the opposite on those two questions, or try. What I don't understand is how anyone can argue that party behavior doesn't overwhelm ideological preferences, or that minority parties don't profit when the majority is kept from governing successfully.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 4, 2010; 3:47 PM ET
Categories:  Government , Political Science , Senate  
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"Second, does the government need to work?"

Did private citizens accumulate $12T in national debt? Did private citizens impose underfunded programs like Social Security, Medicare, Part D and bloated public employee pensions upon themselves? Those are examples of the government "working."

It’s always about winning elections…nothing more. Public Choice Theory explains this behavior really well.

Posted by: kingstu01 | January 4, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Polarization has certainly made politics more interesting. Elections tend to mean more than they used to, candidates are more clearly different from each other, and television and radio coverage of politics is far more entertaining. Rush Limbaugh would not have much of an audience if he had moderate views, and would certainly be a far less wealthy man today.

However, entertainment always comes at a cost. Trying to filter out what actually happened from what the talking heads are saying is becoming more and more difficult. And I find the continuous search for outrage by the politicians and commentators to be tiresome and, frankly, childish.

To me the worst thing about this trend is the lack of sense it makes. Taking extreme left or right wing views almost always involves ignoring facts and letting ideology or emotion govern reaction.

But nuanced views don't make good sound bites.

Posted by: tombeecroft | January 4, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

"Did private citizens accumulate $12T in national debt? Did private citizens impose underfunded programs like Social Security, Medicare, Part D and bloated public employee pensions upon themselves? Those are examples of the government "working.""

Of course, private citizens "imposed" lots of this stuff by itself by, y'know, voting for the politicians who supported it and then re-electing them. Private citizens generally love government programs -- just not the taxes needed to pay for them.

But from a larger point, this argument that the government just "doesn't need to work" strikes me as being really insane at a time of fiscal crisis. If a publicly held company had driven itself deep into the red and blown away money on luxurious but difficult-to-justify projects while letting essential elements of infrastructure deteriorate, no stockholder in the world would want to hear a member of the Board say laissez-faire ideology meant it just "didn't need to work." The fact that government is limping along right now just means that Congress has to be MORE effective, not less.

Posted by: NS12345 | January 4, 2010 9:46 PM | Report abuse

Another Ezra anti-fillibuster rant. A couple of points: 1. the Senate will never vote to abolish the fillibuster since both parties know that they will at some point be in the minority and are unwilling to give up the power the minority party gets from the fillibuster (I wish the government would go back to the size the constitution specifies but that's not going to happent either) and 2. the Senate was not designed to be an institution of purely marjority rules or else it would never have been created the way it is in the first place. Ezra's just upset because his left wing big government healthcare "reform" bill got watered down by all those nasty conservative Democrats that had to be appeased to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican fillibuster. If the the Senate operated like the house the liberals in the Senate could have passed Erza's dream of big goverment single payer healthcare. I still think the bill is horrible but it's microscopically less horrible due to the fillibuster so I'm all for the fillibuster.

Posted by: RobT1 | January 5, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

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