Mark Schmitt for Democracy Journal: Democratic Romanticism and Its Critics

Mark Schmitt: Democratic Romanticism and Its Critics: “Who speaks for partisanship, patronage, corruption, or secrecy?…

…But the new skeptics of reform are not hacks, and they raise valuable critiques that deserve a hearing, even if they are sometimes vulnerable to romanticism, naïveté, and nostalgia of their own. Besides La Raja and Pildes… Bruce Cain… Jonathan Rauch… and Jason Grumet…. These books and articles vary greatly in tone and depth, ranging from Cain’s cool-eyed analysis of paradoxes in dozens of aspects of political reform at the state and federal level, to Grumet’s nostalgia for the era when handshake agreements were made in adjoining chairs in the Senate barbershop.
But these authors share a belief that fixing politics would be a lot easier if we just learned to love the messy and selfish motives of transactional politics….
First, they worry that transparency… actually precludes the quiet backroom deals that allow politicians to back down from hard ideological pledges…. Second, they argue that eliminating earmarked appropriations took away from congressional leaders a kind of currency that had allowed them to buy off members and induce them to compromise. Third, they claim that restrictions on campaign money… have weakened parties and led to the dominance of ideological extremists. Finally, they express concern that… encourag[ing] small donors… further increase[s] polarization because small donors tend to hold more extreme positions. Common… is the goal of strengthening parties, and in particular the power of party leaders to discipline members and manage the political and legislative process….
Reform skeptics see something different: They see parties as essential to mediating citizens’ engagement in democracy. And they see strong parties as an alternative to ideology that can center and stabilize the political system, because parties’ job is to win elections, which pulls them toward the views of the average voter…. But… Cain’s description of political parties doesn’t sound much like the actual parties in our world, particularly the current Republican Party, which Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein have described as ‘an insurgent outlier in American politics.’ If politicians and parties ‘heed public opinion fairly closely,’ it’s hard to explain how a party whose congressional wing had a 71 percent disapproval rating shortly before the 2014 election could nonetheless gain seats and expand its majority…. There seem to be few ‘limits on their incentive to mislead’ on issues such as the Affordable Care Act.
The rule of thumb that parties and politicians gravitate toward the views of the median voter — which Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have skeptically called the ‘master theory’ of American politics — has been put to the test and proven obsolete…. At best, then, the parties as imagined by the reform skeptics should be considered aspirational….
The skeptics’ case in favor of earmarks, despite its appealing contrarianism, is a good example of losing sight of the deeper changes in American politics. Earmarks — specific decisions about where and how to spend money written into legislation rather than left to administrative agencies — were not widely used except by the most powerful members of Congress until 1996, when Newt Gingrich made them available to his newly elected Republican members, so they could use pork-barrel spending to strengthen their re-election chances, much as Democrats elected to competitive districts in the 1970s had mastered the art of intensive constituent services. The number of earmarks quintupled between 1996 and 2005, but it was hardly the most productive decade in modern politics, and the practice was renounced after the 2010 elections…. But… the key fact about earmarks is not that they aren’t available. It’s that junior members of Congress don’t want them anymore….
The skeptics bring a similar contrarian instinct to transparency…. The[ir] case that transparency is to blame for government dysfunction is unpersuasive…. Transparency rules are an exceptionally weak explanation of congressional dysfunction… since there are ample opportunities for members of Congress to negotiate behind closed doors, and laws such as FOIA don’t apply to Congress. (Complaints about congressional negotiations breaking down because of transparency often cite leaks intended to stir up opposition, but leaks are not transparency. They’re a breach of an agreement to negotiate quietly.)… Members of Congress don’t sit down together to find common ground because they don’t want to, not because they can’t. Why don’t they want to?… They can accomplish nothing and still win re-election, and nothing is often exactly what their financial backers prefer them to accomplish. Two, it’s issues, not just institutions, that can form a ground for compromise — but there are now almost no issues on which there is broad agreement on the need to do something, with only different views about how to do it….
There’s a great deal of value in the skeptics’ overlapping arguments. In particular, it’s good to put the goal of having a government that gets things done at the forefront, rather than a utopian vision of a wholly equal, participatory process of democratic deliberation…. But… nostalgia is romanticized in its own way. History suggests that a political system that is closed to outside scrutiny and tightly managed by party and committee leaders, one that is also awash in unregulated and unknown money and driven by quiet deals for votes that benefit parochial interests, not only falls short of a democratic ideal, but also fails by any measure of government effectiveness. That describes American politics in the Gilded Age of the 1890s or the Congresses of the 1950s…. Meanwhile, the most productive period in American government, from about the mid-1970s through the bipartisan achievements of the early George W. Bush years, followed the post-Watergate reforms that opened the process to scrutiny, gave individual members more freedom to operate on their own, and put restrictions on money in politics…

Originally published at