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Times have changed

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Mark Schmitt thinks that the age of hero legislators was dependent on an uninformed populace and a lot of unquestioned privilege:

There's been a lot of nostalgia recently about legislative giants of an earlier era -- retiring Sen. Evan Bayh, dull and cautious, compares unfavorably to his father, Sen. Birch Bayh, who in the same span of three terms compiled a record of both accomplishments and ambitious but failed crusades. The giants of past decades were not necessarily smarter or better people. What's different is that those men (in the mid-1970s, there was not one woman in the Senate) had no hesitation about their entitlement to rule. They never went to town meetings where constituents had read pending legislation on the Internet and asked detailed questions about Section 547 -- indeed they rarely went home at all. Many of them barely worried about reelection.

Today we'd welcome the arrogance and insularity of those giants, who bravely cast unpopular votes. Progressives have been asking both legislators and the president to be more arrogant, to exercise the raw power of the majority without hesitation. But how much real democracy would we have to give up to re-create the environment? Today, as voters, we can read legislation, find the backroom deals, make our own judgments and know in real time how members vote. Congress and the White House are also coming gradually closer to looking like America. With accountability and transparency come legislators who are going to be a little less sure of themselves, a little more worried about each move. It's hard to separate the arrogant bravery of the giants of the past from the isolated white-male entitlement that produced it.

Photo credit: Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  March 31, 2010; 5:51 PM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Comments

"Today we'd welcome the arrogance and insularity of those giants, who bravely cast unpopular votes."

This is just silly. Schmitt is only waxing nostalgic about casting unpopular votes because the policy that he favors (health care reform) is so unpopular with the public right now. Calling it a matter of using the power of the majority is misleading; if healthcare reform had majority support among the public, then it wouldn't be an unpopular vote.

It's also worth noting that it was campaign finance reform that killed the legislative giants. Senators back then didn't have to worry about spending the greater part of each day to accumulate re-election funds, and they could be less responsive to the public because they weren't looking for lots of small donors. It has nothing to do with being white and male, but rather with the way reformers obliged our legislators to fund their campaigns.

Posted by: tomtildrum | March 31, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I sort of agree with tomtildrum, but I also have to focus in on the usual issue I take with most of the folks talking about representation in the legislature- Schmitt is worried about a loss of our democracy, when we're a republic with democratic elements.

Folks should vote who they approve of into office, but they should view their votes as an indication that the person they are voting for(and their attached staff, etc, caveat, caveat) are better, smarter, more ethical governors and lawmakers than the constituency whom they are representing. It's not arrogance when it's the way the system is supposed to work.

Now, the folks we've voted into office over the years may not have been the civic elites we wanted, but that may be in part because of the very democracy/republic distinction we fail to properly make. Instead of voting for people who represent the best of our collective self, we all too often vote for someone who represents us in ways that are decidedly un-civic.

Posted by: finale | March 31, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

"Today, as voters, we can read legislation, find the backroom deals, make our own judgments and know in real time how members vote. Congress and the White House are also coming gradually closer to looking like America."

This is same rationale used by people who think access to the internet magically makes you smarter. You have all the information at your finger tips! Just because people have access to documents, and back room deals, doesn't mean that governing has gotten more efficient or smarter for that matter. The problem with this Schmitt's romanticization of optimal democracy is that it doesn't yield results. So, yes people know more about what Congress is up to, but it doesn't translate into producing better informed citizens or better legislation. You had people yelling that HCR was a government takeover of health care (its not in the least), health care would create death panels, and Obama's the next coming of Stalin.

Posted by: Matt45 | March 31, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

The house shows plenty of courage and it's more democratic then the senate.

Posted by: theamazingjex | March 31, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

How arrogant! Thank God for the internet and the things which require the so called "elected officials" to be answerable to us. But they still don;t get it.

Let's show these clowns that we still know how to vote. Let's reward them for their vote on the healthcare bill.

Let's vote out the congressmen who voted for healthcare.

WE'LL REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER!

Posted by: barrysal | April 1, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

"The house shows plenty of courage and it's more democratic then the senate."

True, but it has the luxury of knowing that its more extreme proposals will be shot down by the Senate.

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 1, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

This sounds reasonable, but what about the fact that this cautiousness, this insecurity, seems to apply to only one party, while the other side remains arrogant?

Posted by: henderstock | April 2, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

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