Polarization, Bipartisanship, and Powerful Interests

I always appreciate a little bit of Taibbi vitriol, but I think this is a pretty poor read of the Democratic predicament:

This is all a long-winded way of saying that we have problems whose solutions involve taking on powerful interests, political challenges that will necessarily involve prolonged and hard-fought conflicts, but what we have in the Democratic Party is an organization dedicated to avoiding such conflicts and resolving issues in the manner of a corporate board, in closed meetings with the chief cardholders where things get hashed out to the satisfaction of everyone present.

Outside the world of political reality, it’s easy to complain about the lack of chutzpah among Democrats in standing up to powerful interest groups, but it really is hard. After all, that’s why they’re called powerful interest groups. I think there are two interrelated causes here, and none in particular has much to do with deference to the political Establishment.

First, this can be understood as a result of Republican intransigence. It’s simply not possible for vulnerable politicians who seek reelection to take on both the Republicans and powerful interest groups at the same time. If Ben Nelson sticks it to a powerful lobby, you can bet that lobby is going to come full force in support of their opponent and significantly endanger reelection prospects. And yes, Ben Nelson isn’t my dream Senator, but there’s no denying he’s better than a conservative Republican. This problem could be avoided however, if Republicans weren’t for the most part fixated on accumulating political power for its own sake and instead acknowledged that there is in fact a health care crisis or that climate change is happening, it would free Democrats to crack down on interest groups without fear of partisan reprisal. Voila.

Second, it’s not entirely fair to pin this on Republicans. You have to acknowledge that today’s current level of polarization (consider perfect partisan sorting in the Senate — the most conservative Democrat is more liberal the most liberal Republican) doesn’t much allow for actual bipartisan coalitions. That is, if you’re making a bipartisan deal it necessarily has to be with someone further down the ideological spectrum, which when weighed with political incentives, makes agreements exceedingly difficult. This wasn’t the case in other periods like the 1960s, when you saw northern Republicans — now largely extinct — band with northern Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act. There are definitely some advantages to a more polarized Congress, but the difficulty of employing bipartisanship to overcome powerful interest groups certainly isn’t one of them.

Finally, it’s worth noting that both of these causes are exacerbated by the recent trend towards the perma-filibuster.

I should finish by saying that Taibbi isn’t entirely incorrect. Democrats do have 60 votes in the Senate, so it’s plausible that a certain amassing of collective will could overcome these groups, but a) it doesn’t guarantee that full cooperation between Republicans and interest groups wouldn’t derail things entirely and b) it would likely result in pretty massive turnover in the next election. Would the risk of failure and the likely loss of seats be worth it? I don’t really know the answer to that question, but I don’t think it’s as clear as Taibbi thinks.


One Response to “Polarization, Bipartisanship, and Powerful Interests”

  1. IndependentBlogger Says:

    to follow up on what you’re saying, IIRC, right before the 1992 election, some guy wrote an article called ‘Demoschlerosis’, that made the case that these special interests’ control over politics and policy need to be reduced. He spent a great deal of time discussing how they latch onto the government and leach money from the public.

    He then made the reccomendation that if you could limit the dollar amount of the government budget they have access to, you would begin to kill them off by making them compete with each other.

    Another thing that would help would be to ressurrect the constitutional amendment to create a line-item veto that the Congress failed to pass in the 1990s.


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