Partisanship and Democracy

Jamelle Bouie on the bipartisanship fetishists:

Masket only hints at this, but there seems to be a real anti-democratic undertone to the Beltway fantasy of perpetual bipartisanship. Think about it: In the bipartisan fantasy land of Mark Halperin or David Broder, elected officials would ignore their constituents in favor of a “bipartisan agenda” defined entirely by a handful of elite opinion writers. For members of Congress, political loyalty would extend as far as themselves, and you would see a steady disregard for grassroots groups and other outside actors. Politics would have far fewer avenues for citizen participation, and voters would completely tune out, as they could never expect to see their votes reflected in policy.

I wrote on this theme for the Atlantic in the spring of 2008:

For veteran Washington hands — wheelers and dealers in the lobbying game or at the major interest groups — the new system is worse than dull. It’s emasculating. This is why political elites find polarization so distasteful. In a polarized world, elections and procedural rules largely determine policy outcomes; there’s little room for self-styled players to construct coalitions on the fly, and enhance their own power in the process. The growth in the lobbying industry might seem to belie the point, but consider Tom DeLay’s post-1994 “K Street Project” — which pressured lobbying firms who wanted access on the Hill to hire more Republicans — or the swing of the pendulum back after the Democratic takeover in 2006. Power in Congress is firmly in the hands of the party leadership; lobbyists become less powerful, not more, in a polarized system.


But for voters, the boring new ways can be looked at in another way — they’re straightforward. Elections have a predictable and easy-to-understand relationship to government action. Electing a Democrat means, on the margin, more spending on the federal safety net and more government regulation, while electing a Republican produces policies more favorable to business interests. You don’t necessarily get everything you want (ask any liberal disappointed by the continued flow of funds for the Iraq War), but at least on domestic measures, things move predictably.

As I detail in the article, in the less-polarized fifties and sixties the relationship between election results and policy outcomes was very murky. It’s not something to be idealized.