The Corner

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A Kind Word for the Smoke-Filled Room

Michael Bloomberg speaks at the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C., April 19, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

There is much that is true and intelligent in this Washington Post column by Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro, in which they argue that much of the current “polarization” (I am not sure that is the exact word) of American politics is a result of political parties that are too weak rather than too strong. Strong political parties have a moderating effect on politics, weeding out the most radical candidates and tamping down the most radical enthusiasms. The absence of strong political parties empowers demagoguery and radicalism, because it is relatively easy for fanatical factions to overwhelm the primary-election process, which tends to have relatively low turnout. Rosenbluth and Shapiro deserve credit for taking on more or less straightforwardly the unpopular position that much of what ails our current politics is that they are excessively democratic in character, lacking the moderating influence of the universally hated elites.

A few thoughts: It is worth emphasizing that the weakening of the political parties enables radicalization — but radicalization in one direction only: populist, if we are being kind, or demagogic, if we are being honest. That results in some funny symmetries: Republican populists hate free-trade deals; Democratic populists do, too. Democratic populists such as Senator Bernie Sanders argue that a permissive immigration regime is a way for self-interested elites to drive down wages and weaken the economic and political position of the working class; Republican populists such as President Donald Trump make the same argument. Democratic populists obsess over relatively trivial issues that they believe to be sops to the elite, such as the preferential tax treatment of long-term capital gains enjoyed by private-equity partnerships; Republican populists complain about that, too, though in smaller numbers and less intensely. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement were united in their resentment of the corporate bailouts that began a decade ago. Populists on both sides of the aisle are skeptical of U.S. military interventions around the world and a diplomatic posture that they regard as domineering in a way that serves elite interests especially. Conversely, there is no populist uprising in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, NAFTA, or USAID, funding basic scientific research, etc.

It isn’t that the populists are always wrong — the U.S. Export-Import Bank really is a corporate-welfare scam — but they have a narrow field of vision, being blinded by their rage and resentment.

Which brings me to a quibble. Rosenbluth and Shapiro write: “The Founders built a political structure of multiple checks and balances to thwart tyranny — at the cost of governability.” That isn’t quite right. The checks and balances constraining the federal government pose no threat to governability when the federal government is restricted to its proper role. The more limited the federal government, the fewer opportunities for demagoguery. A federal government that oversees the military and diplomatic relations, patrols the borders, and arbitrates interstate disputes can operate quite effectively within the Founders’ architecture. One that tries to manage the health-insurance industry, the labor market, and light-bulb design is a different kind of thing altogether. It isn’t that there is no room for populist radicalism in response to a properly limited federal enterprise, but it seems to me that the debate over standing armies already has been settled.

Rosenbluth and Shapiro propose abolishing primaries. That is not the worst idea in the world, but a better one would be to allow the parties to choose their candidates in whatever way they see fit, treating them as the private, independent, political actors that they are. The government should have no more say over how the Republican party chooses its House candidates than it should have over how Apple decides who is going to be its chairman or CEO. (Settle down, Senator Warren! That’s not an invitation.) If people don’t like how that goes, then they can vote for the other party, or start one of their own. It isn’t true that there is no room for third parties in American politics: The Libertarian party has been a spoiler or near-spoiler in recent elections, and the Republican party itself began as a third-party challenger. Nobody except me seems to miss the Whigs.

I’d love to see the Seventeenth Amendment repealed, of course, and to see the states in general reclaim their proper constitutional (and legal, and social) position as co-sovereigns — creators of the federal government, not creatures of it or subordinate to it. But that is all pretty fanciful and would require a radical shift in our political culture, something far beyond mere election outcomes.

But what about the “smoke-filled rooms”? Rosenbluth and Shapiro get into that, and it is worth reading. I’d put it this way: The smoke-filled room and the backroom deal are a lot like Michael Bloomberg’s service as mayor of New York City: easy to hate, maddening, smug, entitled — but you’ll miss it when it’s gone, and you won’t like what comes next.

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