Monday, March 4, 2013

Why are Democrats so timid?

Let me start by admitting that's an unfair question. It is NOT the case that "Democrats" are timid. The party is blessed with a number of bold, daring thinkers, unafraid of conservative bluster and willing to take courageous stands in pursuit of social progress. Our President is the most obvious example of such a leader, but others include Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and Patty Murray.

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, the "timid" charge applies to politicians generally, not to politicians from either party. As David Mayhew points out in his brilliant book Congress, the Electoral Connection, members of Congress are "single minded seekers of re-election". They have to be; the system selects for that behavioral value. Anyone who isn't absolutely focused on the next election loses, usually at the state or local level. Getting elected to Congress is usually the final outcome of a Darwinian process of selection, a career path marked with the defeated campaigns of one's opponents. Politicians who gamble too much lose, and go off to find more lucrative careers elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it is absolutely fair to observe that Democrats in the House and the Senate tend to be be more timid than their Republican colleagues. Their rhetoric is more moderate. Their policies are more incremental. They have a frustrating tendency to adopt the assumptions and narratives of the Beltway press, even when those narratives involve a false equivalence, and attribute a subjectivity to things that are objective, empirical facts.

The most recent example of Democratic chicken-shittedness has been "Dismal" Harry Reid's capitulation on the filibuster. Given the opportunity to reform the filibuster and finally allow    Democrats to legislate, Reid instead opted to preserve the traditions of his beloved Senate. It remains to be seen just how damaging this choice will be for President Obama's policy agenda, but if we get a filibuster of his nominees for the Supreme Court, we'll have Dismal Harry to thank.

Mitch McConnell and Dismal Harry (right) negotiate filibuster reform

Democratic timidity has been a source of intense frustration for many Progressives, going back years. We saw that frustration manifested over the failure of Healthcare Reform to include a public option, the President's tardy enlightenment on Same Sex Marriage and his decision to "surge" in Afghanistan. But it is important to realize that there are reasons for that timidity, and that indeed, timidity is a rational paradigm for people whose guiding motivation is to win their next election.

I have noted elsewhere that the defining characteristic of the American electorate is apathy. Americans (taken as a whole) of this era don't like politics. It bores them. They have only a superficial understanding of their political system. They can't tell you who their elected representatives are, or what positions those representatives have taken on most policy issues. They don't know what their own position is on most policy issues, with any certainty.

But while the average American voter can't recall the name of their Senator, or their Congressman, or (God help us) the Vice-President, they can recognize that name and choose it from a list. A list like, for example, a ballot.

This "recognition" phenomenon explains one of the enduring anomalies of the American political system. Congressional approval rates are lower than David Vitter's morals. The American people regard Congress as corrupt, lazy and completely self-serving. Nevertheless, they continue to vote for them. Incumbent re-election rates were at 90% in 2012. They were at 85% in 2010, commonly portrayed as a "wave" election. We nearly always choose to return the same people we hold in contempt to office, because confronted with a list of names about which we know as little as possible, we select the one we recognize.

It's an odd way for a free people to govern themselves.

The old saying goes, "the only way to lose an election is to get caught with a dead girl or a live boy". There are other ways; anything that gets enough publicity to pierce the willful ignorance of a politician's constituents is dangerous. Keeping a stack of bribe money in your freezer is colorful, it gets lots of press and the voters will hear about it while waiting for the weather on the 11:00 news. An attempted bathroom tryst with an undercover cop is titillating, people don't forget that kind of detail. And a big policy initiative, or a controversial vote, or a deviation from local prejudice or conventional wisdom may have the same effect. Supporting an assault weapons ban won't get as much ink as having an affair with your chief of staff's wife, but it will get some ink, and you can be damned certain your next opponent will try to publicize it.

Adulterer and poster child for Evangelical Christianity John Ensign.

Incumbents thrive on anonymity. Any publicity they seek is of the safe, "I brought you Federal money!" type. They agonize over the tough votes, and pressure their leaders to write legislation to be as uncontroversial as possible. If they keep their heads down, and use their frank to promote name recognition, and don't make anyone in the district too angry, they're a lock to win their next election. They can live in Washington, and make 6 figure salaries, and be wined, and dined, and stroked, and gifted (although they need to be careful about this) and fly to exotic locations on the public dime...

as long as they don't make too many waves.

But that is an explanation of the timidity of politicians. It does not explain the peculiar and institutionalized timidity of Democratic politicians. Political apathy emerged as a dominant value in the electorate in the mid 1950's. As with any complex phenomenon, there are probably many causes. Some of these may be with the gradual replacement of newspapers by television as an evening activity, the rise of consumer values and identity at the expense of community identity, and a broad policy consensus between the two political parties on the basis of support for the Cold War and the existing welfare state as an acceptable status quo. Or maybe not, it's awfully hard to test those hypotheses from the early 21st century.

Liberal Democrat and ardent Cold Warrior Harry Truman

What we do know empirically is that the House of Representatives stopped changing hands. Between 1955 and 1994, Democrats had a majority in the House every single Congress. It was an unbroken hold on power reminiscent of the LDP in Japan or the PRI in Mexico. Democrats controlled the Speakership, the committee chairmanships, the committees themselves. Republicans were limited to the role of a largely symbolic opposition, raising objections from time to time but never exerting any control over the actual process of public policy.

The Senate was nearly the same; Democrats controlled the Senate for the exact same stretch as in the House, with the exception of 6 years under Ronald Reagan. The political timidity that guaranteed reelection for nearly all incumbents also guaranteed Democratic control of the legislative branch. Timidity became ingrained in the culture of the Democratic party more deeply than in the Republican party. Timidity was to the advantage of individual Republican politicians; it was to the advantage of the entire Democratic party, providing them with nearly monopoly control of 1 branch of government, a guaranteed influence over the policy process and domination of that process when they could elect a president, as well.

No strategy is always effective, however. The wave election of 1980 frightened Democrats badly. Not only did they lose control of the Senate for the 1st time in a quarter century, they lost the White House to a candidate who openly challenged the broad policy consensus between the two parties. Ronald Reagan did NOT accept the desirability of the status quo. Rather than the "containment" approach to the Cold War, Reagan was a proponent of "roll-back", the idea that the United States should aggressively attempt regime change in those countries allied to the Soviet Union. He was equally aggressive on "rolling back" the policies of the welfare state, slashing taxes on top wage earners and savaging many programs aimed at the poor.

"Amiable dunce" and national disaster Ronald Reagan. And no, he didn't win the Cold War, either.

And congressional Democrats supinely acquiesced. Democrats were spooked; 1980 was a terrific year for the Republicans, 1982 was just around the corner and opposing the party the electorate had just selected was too much to ask of Democratic politicians who equated controversy with risk. Reagan's entire program was implemented with token opposition, and the Republic suffers from that colossal error to this day.

On the other hand, Democrats held onto the House for another 15 years, so there's that.

Newt Gingrich ended that string of wins by learning the lesson of Reagan; timidity might serve the interests of individual Republican incumbents taking advantage of an apathetic electorate. But timidity was poison for the party, and for ambitious Republican megalomaniacs who wanted to govern rather than simply quietly enjoy the perks of office. Gingrich's time in office illustrates both the advantages and costs of demagoguery. He broke an historic Democratic monopoly on the House, achieved the Speakership... and promptly destroyed his party's brand with an unpopular government shutdown and a nakedly partisan impeachment.

Controversy is a tactic, Newt. It's not a lifestyle choice

Through the entire conservative realignment initiated by Ronald Reagan, Democrats have assiduously avoided controversy. They're happy to take advantage of Republican missteps, of course. Iran-Contra, Gingrich's own political scandal, the Katrina debacle have all been used to good political effect by Democrats. But Democratic policy can be viewed as an acceptance of the narrative established by Ronald Reagan; government is too big, and incompetent. The financial elite in this country must be given every possible incentive and subsidy or they'll... choose to be less wealthy, and we'll all suffer. We must spend more on defense than the next 14 countries on the list combined.

A jellyfish. Note the striking absence of a spine.

To challenge that narrative would be to court controversy. It would invite charges of being a "tax and spend liberal", or "Washington insider" or "soft on defense". It would risk reelection, and that is something Democratic office holders do not do.

Democratic politicians operating in an electoral environment of pervasive political apathy can count on reelection. An inattentive electorate will cheerfully choose their name off a list of total strangers, as being the one that rings a bell. A secure career of perk and privilege and deference is almost guaranteed after your second term...

if you don't make anyone mad. That value, and the institutional culture which generates it are why Democrats are so timid.

It's an horrendously bad way to govern, however.