Politics & Policy

Spoiling The Party

Why special interests aren't democratic.

While trolling around looking for topics for today’s column, I noticed that Rich Lowry was going to write a piece, “Why I’m a Party Man.” Curious, I called Rich and said “let me just say you are even more handsome today than you were yesterday.” To which replied, “Jonah, you can’t see me, we’re on the phone.”

So much for trying to get in good with the boss.

Anyway, I then asked him, “What nectar of the gods will you provide for the readers today, oh great one?”

He replied, “Stop it, Jonah.” But then he continued to explain that he would be writing about how political parties are good for America.

“Oh,” I said. “I assumed you were going to explain how you are a ‘party man,’ because you have the strength of ten men and even after weeks of bacchanalian excess you are wiser than Maimonides and Aquinas combined.”

“Shut up Jonah, I told you: You’re not getting a raise.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, I’m gonna write the opposite of anything you write, you cheap bastard!”

It’s Not My Party

So, Rich “Never Saw a Penny He Didn’t Pinch” Lowry is writing about how the political parties are actually good for America. Let me just say that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Maybe if he spent less time collecting recyclables and more time reading the newspaper he’d … oh forget it, I actually agree with his analysis (his piece has now been posted).

But that doesn’t make me a party man.

Rich points out that political parties are huge, diffuse organizations which tend to be less corruptible than special-interest groups. “In our politics,” writes the man who thinks paper cups are indefinitely reusable, “the parties are the two institutions that think most broadly about what’s good for the nation, rather than what’s good for a specific constituency.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “that sounds like E. E. Schattschneider! He owes me money!”

Well, even if you’re not thinking that or if he doesn’t owe you money, let me explain. The political scientist E .E. Schattschneider (Can you imagine what the kids at the playground did with that name?), studied the role of special interests and political parties in a democracy. Schattschneider made the fairly obvious observation that, inevitably, some groups were going to influence government in a democratic system. Therefore the question wasn’t if politicians were going to be influenced, but who would be doing the influencing.

After a lot of rigmarole I don’t remember from my poli-sci seminars, Schatty (I like to call him that) narrowed it down to a choice between two entities: special interests or political parties.

Ol’ Schatty preferred parties, hands down. The reason was simple, special-interest groups do not care most about winning elections or winning over the public. Groups like the NAACP or the NRA or NARAL are under no obligation to convince the voters of anything. They don’t need a broad philosophy or coherent approach to politics at all. Rather, their obligation is to win on their issues, however their members define them.

Sometimes, sure, this requires an effort to persuade the public, but more often they don’t need to. Indeed, the more obscure the pressure group the less they care about winning public opinion (and obscure pressure groups outnumber famous ones, by my calculation, 1,000 to 1). Snack-food manufacturers, homebuilders, lab-animal wholesalers: When was the last time one of these groups felt the need to take out a TV commercial?

These groups do not care about the common good — or at least the common good is a secondary consideration. They make a beeline straight for individual congressmen, regulators, unknown deputy assistant secretaries of this, that, or the other thing. They fly under the radar of the voters and do not care about elections. In short, they are not democratic institutions.

Meanwhile, the parties have to balance numerous interests. They need to put forward an entire approach to politics which needs to appeal to the broadest possible number of voters while remaining coherent. They care about governing and winning because you can’t win if you can’t govern and you can’t govern if you don’t win. “Party government is good democratic doctrine,” wrote Schatty, “because the parties are the special form of political organization adapted to the mobilization of majorities.”

Fight! Fight!

All of this fit under Schattschneider’s insight into what he considered to be the basic dynamic of democracy, the battle to determine the “scope of conflict.” In his 1960 work, The Semi-Sovereign People, Schattschneider uses a famous, true, story about two guys fighting as analogy. Specifically, it was about a white cop and a black soldier in Harlem in a hotel lobby in 1943. It’s kind of involved, so I’ll boil it down as best I can, mostly from memory (if I get the details wrong, it’s only because I don’t remember them and I don’t get paid enough to look ‘em up).

The two men are fighting for private reasons. The cop is losing the fight so he welcomes help from the white folks in the hotel lobby. Now, the black soldier is losing so he tries to drag the whole thing outside where black people on the street will be more inclined to help him. Ultimately, brawls break out all over the place, including in the hospital where the two men were taken.

Again, I don’t have the book with me, but the point is that the guy winning doesn’t want to get anybody else involved in the fight because, well, he’s winning. In Schattschneider’s view the winner wants to “privatize” the fight. The loser, however, wants to “expand the scope of conflict” or “socialize” it, because he needs allies. The way to do this is make the fight mean more than it actually does. Hence, the original disagreement could have been over a girl or an unpaid debt or how little I get paid — that doesn’t matter. The way the fight gets bigger is if people believe the white cop and the black soldier represent something larger than their own narrow interests: Blacks vs. Whites or Law and Order vs. Chaos or simply, Right vs. Wrong. This is what Schatty called “the contiguousness of conflict.”

This is how special interests tend to operate in a democracy. If the Banana Retailers Association is getting a good deal, they will have no interest in letting anyone know about it, especially if their good deal is a bad deal for the rest of us. Expanding the scope of conflict to an argument about, say, trade policy has no benefit for the Banana Industry (or what Paul Begala calls “Big Banana” — or is that what we call him, I get confused). Similarly it is not in Rich Lowry’s interest for me to enlist allies in my quest for a raise.

This is just one of the reasons special interests love to run to the courts to solve their problems, they don’t trust the American people to get the details (a.k.a. “loopholes”) right. Or, to be more sinister, they fear the American people will get the details right and screw Big Banana. When you have a two-trillion-dollar government regulating a ten-trillion-dollar economy, little details can mean a lot.

Now, here’s the really important part: Contrary to everything you’ve been told by John McCain or the producers at MSNBC, as citizens we should like it when the scope of conflict is expanded as much as possible. When the floodgates are opened, broad principles are debated. Special interests and their narrow needs and petty agendas become capsized in a tide of fundamental questions.

And, according to Schattschneider, the best instruments for expanding the scope of conflict are — you guessed it — the political parties. Simply by virtue of the fact they are accountable to the voters they must maximize the scope of conflict on the issues they care about. Parties aren’t special interests, they are the whales who eat special-interest plankton. Partisanship doesn’t choke the system, it is the systems oxygen. Schattschneider concluded, “political parties created democracy, and … democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.”

So, why aren’t I a party man? Well, two reasons. First, because skinflint Lowry said he was. But more importantly, because by their very nature, parties are always likely to be a little wrong on any given issue.

Think of it like a market. I say a stock is worth $100 dollars. Millions of other people and institutions think it is worth, $50, $76, $23, $512…whatever. The market weighs all of these opinions and ends up valuing the stock at $200. I think that’s wrong, but that’s what the market came up with. The interesting thing is that the market could be wrong. The real value might be $100 or it might be a number that nobody had in mind. But the market comes up with the best price it can.

Parties do basically the same thing. Parties mobilize millions of voters around thousands of issues in hundreds of locations over a broad period of time.

I may know exactly what to do about taxes. My policy may be perfect in every sense, ontological, metaphysical, scientific, financial, aesthetic etc. But the Republican party has to average out the positions of special interests, experts, politicians, morons as well as the inertia our system has against change and — most important — the tactical considerations of the House, the Senate, the media and, oh yeah, the Democrats. The GOP may wind up endorsing a policy nobody feels is the best one. Hell it is almost certain to do that. But parties, like the market, do the best they can.

This is basically why I bristle when people call me a “Republican” pundit or commentator while I’ve got no problem being called “conservative.” The Republican party is simultaneously a megaphone for conservatism and a mixing board (just as the Democrats are for liberalism). The GOP amplifies a conservative philosophy even as it balances different policies. That process means I’m always likely to prefer my party’s approach to any other party’s, but that doesn’t make me a party man.


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