U.S.

The Wrong Bogeymen

People pack the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., September 24 2015. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
The 'establishment' isn't the enemy of the people. The people themselves are.

We worry about the wrong things in politics. We choose the wrong villains.

The parties, for example, and their respective leaderships — the “establishment,” as some people relish calling them. People, including some who really should know better, routinely call for the abolition of political parties, believing them to be instruments of corruption and obstruction. But well-functioning political parties are in fact of great value in democratic systems. Out political parties as institutions are too weak at the moment, not too strong.

It is a proverb that in multi-party parliamentary systems, coalitions are generally formed after the election, whereas in the U.S. system, dominated as it is by two parties, coalitions are formed before the election. There are people who care a great deal about abortion, and there are people who care a great deal about tax cuts, and they are not necessarily the same people, but they join together in the same party for common advancement. The pro-lifers may not care as intensely about tax cuts as some other Republicans do, and the tax-cutter may not care as intensely about abortion as the pro-lifers do — in fact, they might disagree. But they disagree about what are for them low-priority issues.

The party system disincentives fanaticism by requiring cooperation. You may feel very strongly about a certain program of tax or entitlement reform, but you still have to work with people who may disagree with you or who are not as committed to your particular program. And so you come up with a compromise that gets you 70 percent of what you want without alienating coalition partners with other views. A functioning, effective party leadership spends a lot of its time getting that done.

It also spends a fair amount of time acting as a bouncer. Criticize the “smoke-filled rooms” of political lore if you must, but the Democratic party once had the good sense and cunning to keep the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes and Bernie Sanderses far from power. Nancy Pelosi? Tom Perez? That’s leadership that could be knocked over by a strong breeze — and routinely is.

(Republicans, insert your own analogous happenings here.)

Stronger parties would help keep the kooks and the demagogues in the faculty lounge where they belong, and could also help to broker compromises that would bring some measure of stability to hotly contested issues that lend themselves to cheap electioneering, e.g. taxes, health care, financial regulation, etc. The parties aren’t the bad guys.

Neither are the lobbyists. The First Amendment speaks of the right of the people to “petition the government,” and petitioning the government is what lobbyists do. People think that lobbyists show up at Senator Snout’s office with a suitcase full of $100 bills to get him to vote on gun rights . . . the same way he’s always voted on gun rights. That is not how lobbying actually works, usually. (And we already have laws against bribery.) Molly Ivins, who had the soul of a demagogue, used to bellow, “We the People don’t have a lobbyist!” But of course we do. If you’re a teacher, you have a lobbyist. If you’re a doctor, you have a lobbyist. If you sell houses, you have a lobbyist (a big one!). If you care about marijuana legalization or tax reform or trade regulation, there’s a lobbyist for you. And if there is not a lobbyist for you, you can organize and set up a lobby of your own. Journalists like to think of ourselves as the foot-soldiers of free speech, but lobbyists have as much of a claim on that. Democracy is a conversation.

Relatedly, “big money in politics,” is mostly a good thing. If you have the right to free speech, then you also have a right to employ the means necessary to enjoying that right. There’s more to free speech than standing on a soapbox on the town square and shouting. Those who would stifle expression in the name of “campaign-finance reform” say that they wish to limit the influence of money on the political discourse. But spending money to influence politics through communication and argument is fundamental to a modern democracy — and it is not restricted to “special-interest groups,” of which all of us are members. Spending money to influence politics through communication is what the owners of the New York Times do when they publish an opinion column, what MSNBC does when it . . . does whatever it is that MSNBC does these days. Spending money to influence politics through communication is what activists do when they trundle on down to the art-supply store for signboards and markers to make those illiterate placards they wave for the television cameras.

Party insiders and lobbyists are sometimes abominated because their activities are seen as “undemocratic.” Which they are — thank goodness. The Bill of Rights is undemocratic: It is a list of things you idiots don’t get to vote on. Civil rights are undemocratic: 50 percent plus 1 of this nation’s people do not get to revoke them, no matter how devoutly they wish it, and neither do 67 percent or 99 percent. Judicial review is undemocratic. The Senate, as originally constituted, was gently undemocratic, and we are poorer for the progressives’ having succeeded in remaking it as an even more arrogant version of the House of Representatives. In fact, most of the best parts of our constitutional order are undemocratic and act as counters to the popular passions of democracy, which our Founding Fathers understood, feared, and held in contempt for good reason.

But these bogeymen provide welcome distraction from the real enemy. Who’s that? It’s the special-interest group that demands higher spending, lower taxes, and a balanced budget.

You know: Americans.

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