Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Norquist model: How important is party unity?

Mark Schmitt has an excellent post at The Decembrist on whether or not the Democrats should emulate the Republicans in terms of party unity (specifically, the unity-enforcement strategies of Grover Norquist and the Club for Growth). Some on the left argue that the Democrats should mirror the Republicans and enforce ideological unity/purity: "The latest expression of this view is from David Sirota, who argues that Democratic members of Congress who voted for CAFTA should be held "accountable" by the same vicious mechanism by which Norquist holds moderate Republicans accountable."

In my view, Mark is quite right. Whether you support CAFTA or not -- Mark opposes it, I support it with serious reservations -- there's no need for Democrats to enforce party unity on trade. Or, indeed, on most other issues:

There are issues that call for absolute party unity. Social Security was certainly one of them, the cornerstone of FDR's legacy. It was absolutely right to discourage Democrats from even opening the door to negotiations on phase-out, knowing what the consequences would be. But this has not been without cost. The public perception that Democrats were not allowed to think for themselves or collaborate on a bipartisan objective is part of the reason we have a damaged brand. Insisting on party unity was the right thing to do on Social Security, but that cannot apply to every issue...

There are moments when absolute party unity should be enforced by those who are in a position to enforce it. But for each of us to demand absolute party unity around the issue positions that we ourselves happen to hold, as Sirota does in insisting that Dems who don't hold his views on trade be "held accountable" seems to me a recipe for a much deeper form of divisiveness. There are ways to gain and exercise power in this democracy other than the Norquist way, which is unprecedented and ultimately self-destructive.

The U.S. doesn't have a parliamentary system, where the governing party (or coalition of parties) must be able to push through its legislation or step aside for lack of confidence. In the American presidential system, the executive and legislative branches of government are separate, which means that the government does not reside exclusively in the legislature and is not simply formed by the party (or coalition of parties) with the most seats. Thus there are no "confidence" votes in Congress because there is no "government" in Congress. Every vote in Congress is a free vote, where each individual member is free to vote either with his or her party or against it.

Simply put, the two parties in America's two-party system are umbrella parties. As I've put it before, they're "big-tent parties, and electoral success often means harnessing the strengths of internal diversity and translating them into a coherent platform with broad appeal to a diverse electorate. (If you want ideologically rigid parties, go to Europe and seek out PR electoral systems.) Internal debates may be useful in a stimulating sort of way, and I certainly prefer parties that allow for dissent over ones that enforce conformity, but narrow ideological squabbling tends to be counter-productive by diverting attention away from the ultimate goal of electing candidates."

To be sure, a party does need unity in order to win -- to a degree. The different factions within a party need to agree to disagree and to rally together behind a common platform against a common opponent. But such unity doesn't require ideological purity, and there's no need for Democrats -- who are doing well already -- to emulate Republicans in this regard. The Norquist model has contributed to Republican electoral success, but the price of ideological purity is, in the end, extremism and, as a consequence, electoral failure.

And that's exactly where the idolized Republicans are headed.

(Thanks to CommonSenseDesk for the tip.)

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  • Good points Michael. The Dems who want to emulate the Republicans are making false analogies. The assumption is that, if it worked for the Republicans, it will work for the Democrats. So, if the GOP plays to its base, so should the Democrats, etc.

    First, it's not clear to me that the Republicans really do force ideological consistency. They do allow some flexibility so that Republican candidates can move toward the center in blue states. And there are some Republican moderates in Congress who have broken with the White House. And there certainly are differences between religious/social conservatives, such as Gary Bauer, and libertarain/business conservatives. In fact, I have seen suggestions that Bauer is far from enamored with the GOP economic agenda. But they stay together because they hate the Democrats more.

    Second, even if it's true about the GOP, that doesn't necessarily mean the same strategy would work for the Democrats. For one thing, the GOP already controls the White House which gives the GOP an organizing principle around which to gather. Since the Democrats don't have that, I'm not sure what the benefit would be of some sort of ideological rigidity, especially since, with the GOP controlling Congress, the Democrats are in no position to pass legislation. For another thing, the GOP starts off with a huge and ideologically homogenous base in the South and Midwest, particularly the religious conservatives. Regardless of what Rove does or does not do, I think it's this base that enforces the ideological consistency of the Republicans. They can make Republican candidates pay, but more importantly, they can also deliver the winning margins to candidates. I don't think the Democrats really have that ability because the blue states are much less blue than the red states are red.

    It's not clear to me how, without the weapons that the WH possesses and without the ability to deliver winning margins, how the Democrats (or, in reality, the left) could hold Democratic members accountable. Politicians are going to go where their self-interest lies and, the fact is, since liberals aren't going to vote for Republicans, I don't see what realistic threats the left has to keep Democrats in line.

    This is, of course, aside from the fact that sectarian politics like this is offensive to most people and offensive to the ostensible free interplay of ideas that liberals supposedly value (but, in fact, often don't).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:14 AM  

  • You know, Marc, you're right, it is truly and utterly offensive. There's no need for thought police in American politics.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 5:14 PM  

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