Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Party Work

I'm going to have to strongly disagree with Conor Friedersdorf's argument that civic-minded citizens should volunteer for interest groups, rather than candidate campaigns.

Friedersdorf's argument revolves around politicians, who he doesn't much like (so he considers working for them "elevat[ing] corrupt narcissists to positions of power." He argues that their campaign images are phony, and that at any rate they are corrupted by power once they win.

But that's an argument only for treating politicians as people, not as potential messiahs. And he's right as far as that goes. However, that doesn't mean that candidate campaigns are the wrong way to go.

First, while it's always possible to find examples to the contrary, for the most part politicians really do try to carry out their campaign promises.

But more importantly, the best way to think about working for a candidate isn't about the candidate, but about the party. And whether you like parties or not, they are central to how US politics works. In particular, working within the party to try to push it in the direction you want -- which is really what working for a candidate in any primary election does -- is certainly a very good way to effect change.

Suppose, for example, that you strongly support an issue. Friedersdorf's option, which is certainly a reasonable one, is to find the group that advocates for the policy you support and add your voice (time, effort, energy, money) to theirs. That's useful! But even more useful would be to help convince 40,000 or so Iowans to support a presidential candidate who advocates for the policy, especially if it's a new position for the party, or perhaps one that the party has been wobbly on in the past. You don't even need 40K in Iowa to impress; last time around, 20K would have been enough to run a respectable third place on the Republican side, and in the right circumstances that might be enough to strongly influence the party. And if you influence the party, you eventually influence policy. Because sooner or later the party will be in power, and it's most likely to act on those policies on which it is most strongly committed.

It doesn't have to be a presidential campaign, either. One of the benefits of the Madisonian system is that there are thousands of politicians who matter, hundreds of them at the national level. Directly and indirectly. Even backbench Members of the House make a difference over time, because they can "prove" to their colleagues that some once-taboo policy position has become safe over time, or even that it is now becoming a party requirement. So if you're a Tea Partier, working in 2010 for Ron Johnson or Mike Lee made lots of sense even if you didn't have any particular regard for them personally. The same would be true for liberal Democrats -- if you're looking for something to do to advance the cause of adding a public option to ACA or repealing DOMA or getting a carbon tax passed, my guess is the best thing you can do right now is to find a House primary in a winnable Democratic district in which the candidates for nomination disagree on your issue, and get involved in favor of the candidate on your side. And then next fall, find a marginal House district or Senate race and work on that campaign.

Now, to be fair, I'm not aware of any kind of empirical study comparing the efficacy of spending $1 or an hour of volunteer time, and I'm not sure such a study would be even remotely possible. (It's possible to study the effect of money, and presumably other investments, on election results -- but broadening that to the question of policy effects presumably makes it prohibitively complex). And I definitely don't want to run down participation in interest groups. And of course many interest groups themselves are party-aligned to varying extents. But my strong guess is that if one had to choose, party work, including involvement in nomination battles and also general election fights, is in general more effective. Either way, once again the big point here is that involvement in candidate campaigns should properly be seen as party work. It's not about, or at least in most cases it shouldn't be about, believing in a particular politician.


  1. I actually am a bit torn on responding to this. Fundamentally, I agree with you that a) involvement in party and candidate campaigns is a very important and good option for people to consider in their effort to fulfill their role as citizens, and b) that the effort to maintain "purity" by remaining free of entanglement with politicians is a really bad path.

    On the other hand - I actually work for one of those interest organizations that tries to influence policy by mobilizing folks to stand up, speak to their representatives, vote, and otherwise work through the political process - and I am also convinced that the work of our volunteers is also a good and valuable way for people to be participants in our government.

    So - I suppose that, while I wholeheartedly endorse your conclusion that Friedersdorf goes too far when he urges people to stay out of party and candidate volunteering - I would prefer a recognition that there are many ways to participate - that people who care about our country should avail themselves of many of them (and if we want to pretend to be all Game Theory like - we could even hand wave about the importance of "mixed strategies" and pretend that the best choice would involve some work with candidates - some work with parties - and some work with interest groups)

  2. The strongest argument in the open is that candidates really do try to live up to campaign promises. That's certainly true, though Friersdorf might counter that it is only true insofar as those promises align with a specific, coveted constituency. If you're not in the coveted constituency, you may find those promises awfully tenuous indeed.

    An illustration might help. There are probably a thousand reasons to oppose climate legislation. Suppose you oppose it because, I don't know, you like the idea of a warm Earth. You belong to the (smallish) "Warm Earth interest group", and per the reco in the open, you've decided to back Tim Pawlenty, since, like you, Pawlenty opposes climate legislation.

    Course, he didn't always. Aside from his awkward, hat-in-hand mea culpas, you're not entirely sure why he does now. Maybe he's seen the light that a warm earth seems pretty cool...or maybe he's just catering to the fears of elderly voters stemming from possible near-term economic hiccups with cap-and-trade.

    If its true that Pawlenty is just catering to elderly voters, then he's not really a "warm earth" guy. For the millionth time, politics has made strange bedfellows, as Pawlenty and your warm earth crowd find themselves aligned, entirely by accident. Pretty obviously, if Pawlenty can find a way to get to climate legislation that doesn't threaten his coveted constituency (elderly voters), he's gonna do it - and leave your warm Earth crowd out in the cold.

    In summary then, you can probably only safely support a politician who has a long-standing, iron-clad commitment to your interest group's cause, rather than the more common 'strange bedfellows' variety. Friersdorf might argue that such politicians with long-standing commitments are few and far between; he'd probably be mostly correct if he did.

  3. One other thing: the main objective of a politician is always to win elections. Obviously ("read my lips") going back on pledges can be pretty detrimental to winning elections. However, engaging in some of the fudgery that Friersdorf bemoans can be an effective way to corral votes. One of the best illustrations of such fudgery is probably still a bit painful to some readers of this blog.

    Everyone knows that there is a substantial cohort in the partisan Democratic tent that is dead-set opposed to American imperialism, some for human rights concerns, others because resources are better focused stateside. The 2008 Democratic primary pitted a relative unknown with a thin record against the most powerhouse brand in modern politics.

    That powerhouse brand pretty much is a living, breathing war machine. The Clintons are probably at the 95th percentile (or higher) when it comes to imperial hawkishness among partisan Democrats. A primary opponent of the Clintons who clocks in at the 94th percentile stands to win 94% of the military-based Democrat primary vote - without being necessarily dovish. But that's obviously not what the doves are looking for when they seek a primary candidate to support.

    How did Obama embrace the military industrial complex, marginally less so than the Clintons, while not alienating the doves? His stump speeches reminded us endlessly that he would have voted against the Iraq War. Doves heard that to mean that he was one of them, which is what it was supposed to do. Those who were maybe at the 90th percentile on Democratic hawkishness, not quite Clinton extreme hawks, heard it as an indictment of the irrationality of Iraq, which is also what it was supposed to do. That's the problem with politicians.

    The problem with supporting a candidate as a proxy for an issue is that it is human nature to want to like a candidate. Candidates know this, everyone knows this. So the dove hears "I would have voted against Iraq" and thinks, this Obama is like me, he is opposed to the reach of the military-industrial complex, and the somewhat-hawk things, this Obama just wants to use the military-industrial complex more effectively. Everyone feels like they win. Probably, no one does.

    Much less confusing simply to remain focused on the issues you feel strongly about.

  4. I agree with your views, though for slightly different reasons. Mr. Friedersorf's argument makes the argument that interest groups are more effective than politicians in promoting certain issues and influencing political debate. I think that's true for a very narrow range of policies and issues, mostly where there is a continuous set of policy choices and interests groups have enough power to sway the median/final voter's position on a matter. So, if you're campaigning to increase (or decrease) the amount of money that the government spends on foreign aid, then I agree that interest groups will be the most effective way to shift the debate towards your preferences.

    That becomes less true for issues that are moral, philosophical, abstract, binary, multidimensional... Then, the influence of interest groups is arguable lessened, and as a voter you would be better off trying to get a politician whose views are most similar to yours into the debate. Not that interest groups can't have some sort of effect, like Mr. Friedersorf's mention of the NRA. But if you're for gun control, you're better off trying to help elect Congressmen who support your position than trying to influence interest groups.

  5. I think it's more that politicians make campaign promises to do the things they already believe in and intend to do rather than that they make campaign promises then make an effort to enact them once elected.


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