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Two Models of Congressional Action

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"Two Models of Congressional Action"

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(official White House photo)

(official White House photo)

One way of looking at how congress, the White House, and public opinion interact goes like this. The President offers a health care plan and arguments in favor of it. His critics offer opposing arguments. Both sides are more or less persuasive. And depending on which side is more persuasive, public opinion tilts for or against the plan. And depending on how public opinion tilts, members of congress will vote and the plan either passes or fails.

Another model would look quite different. In this model, most members of congress have a great deal of latitude to vote however they want. They’ll decide what they want to do. And if all the Democrats decide to back the president, probably a few moderate Republicans will join in. And if the public sees basically the whole Democratic Party joining with a few Republicans to pass a health care plan, then self-identified “independents” or “moderates” will conclude that it’s probably a good plan and generally approve of it. Thus, the plan will be popular. Alternatively, if moderate Democrats decide to vote “no,” then Republicans will offer uniform opposition. And if the public sees all Republicans joining with some Democrats to defeat a health care plan, then self-identified “independents” or “moderates” will conclude that it’s probably a bad plan and generally disapprove of it. Thus, the plan will be unpopular.

Personally, the second model seems more plausible to me. Model 2 attributes agency and detailed opinions to professional politicians, and leaves the broad mass of not-very-informed people to make their decisions based on crude heuristics. Model 1, by contrast, seems a bit nutty—it attributes agency and detailed opinions to the broad mass of ill-informed people and suggests that professional politicians make their decisions based on crude heuristics. The press, however, seems to uniformly believe in Model 1 and dismiss Model 2 out of hand. In defense of my view, I’ll marshall not only common sense, but also Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy”.

I think Model 1 tends to dominate since politicians don’t like to admit how much agency they have. It makes the moral stakes in their decision-making seem almost intolerably high. Like Kierkegaard characters, they prefer not to face the awesome nature of their moral responsibility.

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