Political Agency and Culpability

Ruth Marcus defends Liberal Republicans and Conservative Democrats:

One difficult test of who’s right here involves the role of the conservative House Democrats, Blue Dogs and others. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel helped elect them. Now he has to cope with the consequences of having a Democratic caucus with a cadre of members significantly to the right of their party but in the leftward precincts of their districts. If they vote like prototypical Democrats, they won’t be coming back.

Would the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) be better off with and have greater cooperation from Republicans from those districts who would have to be mindful about keeping moderates on board? Perhaps — but they also might not have a majority, and certainly not as thumping a one as they currently (temporarily?) enjoy.

While currently Conservative Dems out number liberal Republicans such that swapping them out would drastically hurt the Dems, engaging in such a discussion concedes all the errant assumptions embodied in this straw man argument.

Firstly, just kicking out dozens of elected officials out the party isn’t a serious suggestion. What is a serious suggestion is reducing the level of institution support for less loyal members of the Party. This is something both parties fiddle with all the time. Each party has limited resources and obviously ‘going rogue’ is going to undermine your claim to a share of the pie. The question is how ‘rogue’ do they have to go to lose out on party support.

Secondly, as Matthew Yglesias points out politicians often have significant flexibility. Democratic and Republicans Senators from the same State rarely have similar voting patterns. Further I’d argue that politicians which go the Bart Stupak route and push some major amendment that causes a big stir are rarely motivated by political survival. Politicians that want major concessions, none the less are willing to vote with their party. Truly weak politicians just vote the other way.

Which leads to the point that ideology is just a poor way to describe the whole issue. Politicians of all stripes pursue ideological agendas, but also respond to special interests. It’s much more likely that somebody threatening to a throw a wrench in the works is motivated by a desire to achieve the goals of some narrow interest, then by ideology. Anybody threatening to gum up the works is also saying they’re close to voting for the bill in question. The real ideologues are the ones voting no, regardless of this or that amendment.

While citing personal ideology or the political limitations of local politics might seem different, they’re all part of the same cop out, politicians don’t have agency. But of course they do have agency and they use it all the time.

It’s the nature of political rhetoric to mask that agency and the accompanying responsibility in high-minded talk of political reality and the impracticality of this or that ideological goal. We shouldn’t waste time defending the actions of politicians for reasons other then that those actions deserved to be defended. Anything less and we’re just defending the powerful for the sake of their power.


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