Monday, March 8, 2021
#67 / The Quest To Cooperate
In a "News Analysis" published in The New York Times on Sunday, March 7, 2021, Carl Hulse talked about bipartisanship in the United States Congress. Actually, Hulse's topic can better be described as the lack of bipartisanship in the United States Congress. In the hard copy version of The Times, the headline reads: "Stimulus Win Shows Quest To Cooperate Is All But Lost." Online, which is where you will be directed if you click this link, the paper ran the following headline and sub-headline:
After Stimulus Victory in Senate,
Reality Sinks in: Bipartisanship Is Dead
With Republicans poised to block Democrats’ top priorities, the party-line vote on the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package showed the gulf between the parties was too wide to be bridged.
My reaction to the article was that Hulse missed something by way of the "analysis" part of his "News Analysis."
In our system of representative democracy, "parties" are not supposed to be the key players. "People" are supposed to be the key players. You probably remember that whole "We the people" thing, right?
Political commentators, like Hulse, generally cover activities in the Capitol, where the party system is currently determining what happens. Hulse is certainly correct in reporting that the Republican Party has decided that it won't "cooperate" with anything proposed by the Democratic president. And the implication is that nothing can really be done about that, except that the Democrats might get some Republican votes by compromising away key elements of their proposed legislation.
Hulse notes in his article that the polls indicate that a majority of Americans - and this means Americans who live and vote in "Red" states as well as in "Blue" states - are in support of the $1.9 trillion pandemic recovery package proposed by President Biden. The "people," in other words, wanted a "Yes" vote on the bill. It was the Republican Party that didn't.
The party won. The people lost. As a reminder, the same phenomenon can occur when the people at large, both Democrats and Republicans, support some policy or piece of legislation that the Democratic Party decides to oppose. Almost always, the "party" prevails and the "people" lose. Congress operates with the "parties" in charge, and individual Members of Congress vote to do what the party says, not what the voters who elect them say.
Why is that, do you suppose?
Well, the main concern of most Members of Congress, all of the time - and the main concern of all Members of Congress, a good bit of the time - is their concern about whether or not they will be reelected. These elected representatives are not, generally, "Profiles in Courage," to remind us all of former President Kennedy's book. Most Members of Congress will vote, most of the time, the way that the Members believe will give them the best chance of reelection.
Just to be clear, this should be considered to be a "feature, not a bug" in our democratic system. Our system of representative democracy absolutely recognizes the tendency towards self-interest that plays such a powerful role in what people do - including those people who get elected to public office. The original idea was that elected officials would be so fearful of upsetting the voters - the voters who put them into office and who might choose to take them out of office at the next election - that they would almost always do what the majority of the voters in their district wanted them to do. If they didn't, they weren't going to have that job for long!
Now, the "news" portion of Hulse's "News Analysis" correctly reports that this is not how the system is working. So, let's do a bit of "analysis." Why is that the case?
The desire of Members of Congress to be reelected is still as strong as ever. Nothing about that has changed at all. What has changed is the Members' evaluation of what they need to do to gain reelection. Instead of being primarily concerned about what voters in their districts will think, they are mainly concerned with what the party leadership will think. The Members are more afraid of the party than they are afraid of the voters. For the most part, this is because the parties have put themselves in the position of determining who will run, and who gets funding to run. That is why elected officials are more afraid of losing the support of "the party" than they are of losing the support of the voters.
If you think that this sounds more like a "parliamentary" system than our original American system of representative democracy, you'd be right. Do we think that making the "party" primary, and "the people" secondary, is actually a better way to get responsive government?
I, personally, do not. Of course, that's why I was a delegate for Bernie Sanders in 2016, instead of the party-designated candidate. I think elected officials, and those running for elected office, should be directly responsive to the people themselves, not to party officials who claim to speak for them. That is not, of course, the way it's working now, and it won't work that way unless ordinary voters decide that they want to be engaged individually in our political life, and then spend some time getting engaged, instead of delegating their power to the party that they are persuaded best represents them.
In fact, both parties largely represent the corporate and business interests which provide the parties with the money the parties need to win elections. And when voters are pretty detached from direct participation in politics, that money is what buys the ads that convinces the voters which way to vote. When voters are more personally involved (you can call it "populism" if you want) then candidates and officeholders start getting more afraid of the voters than of the party. That is pretty much what's going on with the Republicans, right now.
If there had been focused efforts in the local districts represented by Republicans, and if those locally-based efforts - spearheaded by the Democrats - had made it very clear to those Republican Members of Congress that their voters would hold them responsible if they failed to vote for effective pandemic relief - it is my belief that there would have been a significant number of Republican votes for the bill.
That is actually the way it's supposed to be. Elected officials should be afraid of the voters, not the party.