While I have never been intellectually attracted to centrism, and while I’ve made my distaste for High Broderite bipartisanship-for-the-sake-of-bipartisanship very clear, I haven’t yet addressed one major element of what I call “process politics” that I think is pernicious – the cult of “reasonableness.”
The idea of “reasonableness” as it plays in politics is that the party of government (not necessarily the party “in” government, but the party that believes in government) has to behave in a reasonable manner, passing budgets on time, playing by the procedural rules, and make compromises to make things happen, even if it means making compromises before legislation is even introduced, so as to seem “reasonable.”
My problem with “reasonableness” stems from the fact that it stands in direct opposition to the way that politics actually works.
Lessons of ’09:
While the fate of the current health care reform is still up in the air – although signs that a robust public option will pass the House and some form of a public option will be included in the Senate bill are welcome – one thing that I think will be a historically significant outcome of the effort will be the emergence of the Congressional Progressive Caucus as a functional pressure bloc within the House of Representatives, and the Congress more broadly.
This is somewhat surprising to say the least, because the Congressional Progressive Caucus hasn’t had much of a great track record over the last twenty years. To be fair, for much of that period, the CPC was struggling with a major structural roadblock – namely, for eight years out of those twenty, they had to deal with President Clinton, who would use them to “triangulate” off of, and for another eight, they were stuck with a Bush administration that any Democratic legislation more or less an academic question. However, even if we look back to the beginning of this year, we saw a Progressive Caucus that was essentially ignored on the stimulus and the budget, sidelined on the banks and to a lesser extent on the bailouts (at least in relation to the auto bailout), and beaten up over housing and credit card reform. What these defeats had in common was that the Progressive Caucus was in support of the underlying idea, wanted the Obama administration to succeed, and could essentially be counted on as supporters. As a result, they were essentially taken for granted, while conservative Democrats were able to win huge concessions despite being far less numerous as a caucus.
So what’s different about the health care debate?
- Focusing on a Particular Political Object: in previous legislative fights, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has tried to play the slightly odd role of a reasonable pressure group, focusing on writing alternative legislative proposals that never went anywhere. The leadership never picked these up, they often weren’t introduced as amendments, and in general they were dismissed out of hand as being too far to the left to ever gain enough moderate votes to pass. At the same time, the comprehensiveness of these alternatives made it rather difficult for non-experts to understand what the particular fight between liberals and leadership was about, unless they took the time to read comparisons. By contrast, in the health care fight, the CPC picked a single and concrete political object – the “robust” public option – and chose to make their stand there.* This had several advantages:
- It meant that the leadership was now confronted with a single “ask” which they would have to accommodate and omission of which would be much harder to spin away as “well, we tried, but this is the best we can do.” Either it’s in and you have the CPC’s votes, or it’s not and you don’t. This also makes accountability for party leadership easier to enforce.
- It made the policy conflict translatable into media-speak – the issue was “the public option,” was it in or not, something simple that could be easily crammed into a 30-second news spot, instead of requiring a long-form magazine article to unpick each aspect of the difference between the CPC’s bill and the other bill.
- It made it easier for the CPC to exert political pressure by simplifying internal decision-making process. Instead of the agonizing difficulty of trying to balance, on the stimulus for example, an extra few billion for high-speed rail made the bill worth voting for, or whether $50 billion less for schools was worth junking the bill and trying to get all eighty-odd members of the Caucus to agree on a single metric for making these calculations, there’s just one criteria for whether the CPC should support the bill.
* It should be pointed out that picking an issue to focus on doesn’t mean giving up on the rest; the CPC hasn’t stopped pushing on the expansion of Medicaid, or improving affordability, or the like, but the spotlight on the public option gives an overall strategic focus that otherwise would be lacking.
- Drawing Bright Lines: in previous legislative fights, the Progressive Caucus was never able to portray itself as a potential defector, and was thus unable to gain the political leverage necessary to insist on getting its own way. Economic stimulus, or a budget that increased social spending was seen as something that the CPC would “have” to vote for – and thus, the CPC could basically be ignored while leadership focused on winning over the Blue Dogs and New Democrats. In this sense, the Blue Dogs’ unreliability was an advantage – because they were widely perceived as not reliable votes, their threats could be taken seriously when they drew a bright line on “less than $800 billion” or similar issues. In this case, when the CPC took an early vote to not vote for a bill that didn’t fit within their “bright line,” they gave themselves a huge amount of leverage by showing that they were not going to naturally support anything, and that there were particular provisions that could attract or repel their support en masse (instead of a more abstract assessment of whether something was “liberal enough.” The lesson from this is that in the future, the CPC should always begin their legislative process by taking an early vote that they will vote on the bright line or not at all, regardless of whether they are generally in favor of the underlying bill.
- Leveraging Whip Counts: because the CPC’s “veto” threat was taken seriously on health care, a factor that hadn’t been in place in previous fights now came into effect – the relative size of the CPC compared to the Blue Dogs. In previous fights, the CPC’s 80-odd membership had an undersized influence because people in the leadership viewed them as unlikely to bolt or to act collectively, and the Blue Dog’s 50-odd membership had an oversized influence because people in the leadership viewed them as likely to bolt as a group. So when the CPC were able to push through a whip count with sixty or more votes against any bill without a robust public option, and the Blue Dog’s whip count showed a fifty-fifty split, the CPC were able to literally throw their weight around, forcing the leadership to recalculate their vote counts in a way they didn’t have to do before. And this is perhaps the most hopeful sign of all – there are many more Progressives than Blue Dogs in the Democratic Party, and as long as the leadership actually has to court Progressive votes, they can exercise much more political “gravity” in the future.
Theory of Power:
In politics, we tend to focus a lot on analogies to explain the legislative process – bartering, contract negotiations, poker games, and the like. One of the things these analogies tend to have in common is a process that often involves compromises and rational calculation. And all of this fits in very well with the cult of “reasonableness”‘s exaltation of the statesman as compromiser.
But when you look back through the history of legislative groups, the most successful ones are the ones that combine collective action with implacable patience. The Radical Republicans were always a minority within the Republican Party of the 1860s, but they acted in concert, they were absolutely unshakable in their pursuit of the total abolition of slavery, and they were willing to wait as long as it took. The Dixiecrats, despite being a minority in the Senate, were able to block civil rights legislation for well over forty years, simply because they acted in a completely unreasonable fashion, filibustering even the mildest legislation. The Home Rule Party in the British Parliament – famously held together by a list of undated letters of resignation held in Parnell’s safe as an ultimate “party whip – were able to force Home Rule legislation onto the Parliamentary agenda three times, despite being a clear minority in Parliament, precisely because they were willing to bring down governments over their one issue.
In short, in politics, brinkmanship works – most of the time.
Applying The Lesson of ’09:
At the very least, the CPC needs to apply this lesson on upcoming major pieces of legislation – financial regulation, EFCA, immigration, and perhaps climate change (although the passage of Waxman-Markey through the House may have screwed up the timing on this one) – and pick a key legislative item to focus their efforts on, make an early statement of “bright line” support/non-support, and get to whipping those votes.
Other progressive groups at different levels of government should also apply this lesson to their political efforts, and some state and local groups have already been doing this for a while. The Working Families Party in New York, bolstered by their rare ability to push from both within and without the Democratic Party proper, succeeded in forcing the state to balance the budget through progressive taxation instead of cuts-only as has been the case in other states.
Critically, I think California progressives in the state legislature need to learn this lesson. While the California legislature is one of the most progressive in the country by the numbers, the state’s policy direction has been much more conservative. In part, this is a structural legacy of the 2/3rds requirement on budgets and taxes, but there’s no denying that California’s Republican state legislators have been incredibly successful in applying their limited numbers in concerted actions to force concessions from the ruling party, and it doesn’t help that the Democratic leadership isn’t facing the same kind of pressure on its left that it is on its right. For all the noblest reasons – a sincere belief that government is important, a desire to protect the poor, the elderly, children, women, and other vulnerable groups – the Democratic majority gets hustled into enacting conservative legislation in order to pass budgets and keep the state’s public institutions extant.
While California’s state government is in need of a lot of different reforms – from majority rule to establishing an oil severance tax to eliminating billions of dollars in corporate tax breaks to fixing our broken property tax system – it is also the case that California needs a “caucus of holdouts” in the state legislature who are willing to serve as a countervailing force against the Republican minority, to bring pressure on the leadership wherever possible to confront the state’s structural problems and force systemic change.
The idea of democracy as a noble, deliberative process is a fine one, but it is in the end nothing more than a fairytale. Throughout our history, whenever you look behind the rosy glow of hindsight, our selfless statesmen turn out to be just as ambitious, brawling, compromised, and underhanded as the politicians we see today.
So why shrink from the messy humanity of democratic power?