On the other hand, to dismiss the call by supposing that pols would take calls from "campaign donors, rich people, and celebrities" and putting them all into a sort of reflected thrill frame is more than a bit disingenuous. Salam is conflating two very different things. It's certainly possible that pols might want the excitement of talking to a big shot, but that's not what's going on in a conversation with a political ally.
Nevertheless, he's correct that taking a call doesn't necessarily mean anything at all about whether Walker is likely to do, or even seriously consider, what the person on the other end of the line says. If there's one thing that politicians are trained to do it's to act as if they're listening carefully and respectfully to those they believe are blowhards and cranks. Of course, in this case it's pretty clear that Walker is solidly following the movement conservative hard-liners, for whatever reasons -- could be because of campaign funding, but it could just as easily be because he really believes in those ideas, or because he's using them to become a national politician. That he's also willing to take a call from a conservative bigshot doesn't really add anything to what we know about that. And I agree with Dave Weigel's point that liberals are becoming a little goofy on the subject of the Koch brothers (although, really, it's hardly a point against the Koch's influence to point out that all of organized labor did manage to spend considerably more than two guys).
At any rate, what interests me the most about Salam's piece is this:
This is a big part of why we right-wingers think that politicians should have very narrow, circumscribed powers. They’re not an attractive bunch.The problem with that sort of attitude is that if politicians don't have much scope to do anything, then you don't really have much of a democracy. It's all very well to say that politicians shouldn't have the ability to interfere with people's lives, but that's really just to say that the scope of democracy should be very narrow and circumscribed.
A much better answer to this is James Madison's in Federalist 51: allow democracy to be powerful, but constrain individual politicians through various constitutional devices. Make the ambitions of politicians work for democracy, instead of against it.
Of course, to say that politicians -- to say that the political system -- should have the ability to do things doesn't imply that they should do those things. And establishing some limits beyond which the ordinary political processes of democracy may not go (as in human or constitutional rights) can be justified democratically on a variety of grounds
Yes, politicians are often pathetic creatures, ambitious beyond all reason and pathetic in their search for approval from the masses. Those are good things! They make democracy work. The really dangerous pols are the ones who believe the nonsense about ignoring the polls and doing what's right, regardless of the consequences to their careers.
"The really dangerous pols are the ones who believe the nonsense about ignoring the polls and doing what's right, regardless of the consequences to their careers." Really?? So, if a politician raised taxes that would make them dangerous because it would be ignoring what the polls say people want? Which polls are you talking about here? I'm of the view that the only poll that should really matter is an election.ReplyDelete
You're right that Walker taking a call from a Koch is neither surprising nor particularly telling about his intentions. (It tells us more about the professionalism of his staff - who lets a call through to the governor based on nothing but a name-drop?) But this classic bit of Bernsteinism is going a bit too far:ReplyDelete
politicians are often pathetic creatures, ambitious beyond all reason and pathetic in their search for approval from the masses. Those are good things! They make democracy work.
This may be right in some abstract, academic sense - but in another, more accurate sense, it's wrong. That's because it's only applicable in an idealistic utopian democracy: one where the "masses" are able to hear all sides to a debate at an equal volume; where they are perfectly rational creatures who can then make sound policy judgments; where they are never fed a steady diet of lies by powerful, politically-motivated media elites; and where politicians are always straightforward and honest about what they intend to do once they are elected.
In the real world, voters are subjected to constant misinformation and obfuscation from the media, so they can't make rational policy judgments (even if they wanted to), and they end up voting based primarily on tribal and cultural cues. Meanwhile, "beyond all reason" ambition leads politicians to pander to these base instincts; then, once they are in office, their incentive is to lie--and act against the interest of the nation if need be--if it ensures re-election.
Of course, Madison himself wanted democracy to be “very narrow and circumscribed.” He was the constitutionalist of the Kochs’ dreams.ReplyDelete
"In the real world, voters are subjected to constant misinformation and obfuscation from the media, so they can't make rational policy judgments (even if they wanted to), and they end up voting based primarily on tribal and cultural cues."ReplyDelete
We have innumerable examples of people making rational policy judgments so the only way this statement is true is if you make it vague enough to be unfalsifiable and meaningless. Besides that, it's pretty presumptuous to think that you know exactly why people vote the way they do (something political scientists don't claim) and that you're a better judge of rationality than is a system that has survived several times longer than you've been alive.
To pick up OMum's thread and an old argument: granted that politicians should not *habitually* ignore polls, do you really think that they should *never* disregard them and do what they think is right, at risk of their careers? I think that all politicians should be ready to do that, if not exactly eager.ReplyDelete
That's not correct. The Constitution is all about creating power for the national government -- and Madison wanted more than he was able to get.
It's true that people are misinformed and uninformed (see next item), but representative democracy, at least in my view, does not depend on well-informed, rational voters making sound policy judgments.
Ah, but this does bring up the old trustee/delegate canard.ReplyDelete
One could reasonably argue that, with local representation in our Madisonian system, there are a number of potential "ideal" forms of representation. ("ideal" not because they are all good, but they are all abstract types). We could have someone who acts as a delegate from their district, or from some larger aggregation (state, region, or country; or we could start talking about classes, professions, races, ideologies, etc.). We could also see a trustee acting to advance what they see as best for their district, state, region, country, class, race, what-have-you.
Naturally, we can add the level of Arendtian complication you favor, with negotiated relationships in these dimensions validated by elections.
My larger point, though, is that your formulation above comes off decidedly on the delegate side of the ledger. I'm not sure we can say that the really dangerous pols are those that ignore the polls; to be cheap and throw an example in your face, Brown v Board was hardly popular at the time. Yes, court and all that, but the point remains that people can want bad things.
I think that the beauty of the Madisonian system is that the division of power forces a discussion of these things, and we can hope that a discussion of bad things reveals them to be bad and learning can occur. But, at the end of the day, any form of democracy can choose to drive off a cliff. It's not a good thing; it's decidedly a risk of a democratic form of government. But, it's yet another confirmation of Churchill's point: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others than have been tried.
In the long run, representative democracy does depend on sound policy judgments being made in the aggregate. Those decisions are made by representatives (either elected or appointed), but we tend to expect that representatives, well, re-present the views of their constituents to some degree. Slavery wasn't only a failure of leadership; it was a moral failure of the population at large, which for a long time, didn't really object to the practice. That was a true failure of representative democracy, if only because we were a failure as human beings. Representative democracy may help smooth some rough edges and steer policy in a "better" direction than that which the public wants, but the public draws the window of what is acceptable. Until 1860, that window included slavery. Until 1960, that window included racial discrimination. For our entire history, that window has included sexual orientation discrimination. I don't think a different form of government would necessarily "solve" our problems, but representative democracy sometimes doesn't do so, either.
True, the Constitution created significant federal power beyond what the Articles provided. But in Madison’s perception, it was narrowly circumscribed power... so much so, that he believed a bill of rights was an unnecessary protection against powers the government wasn't granted to begin with. For better or for worse, today’s federal government has gone far beyond the Constitutional limits imagined by Madison.