Constituencies and interest groups might matter a little less than we think

Will is right to say that I didn’t fully address one of Douthat’s core points, which he summarizes (quite well, I should add) in the post below:

The point of redistributive taxation isn’t to soak the rich – raising taxes, after all, imposes economic penalties. The larger goal is to improve the lot of poor and middle class citizens through redistributive programs. If the effectiveness of those programs is compromised by the Democratic Party’s core constituencies – teacher unions, the pro-immigration lobby – then perhaps it’s time to reconsider the scope of the Left’s political ambitions.

I agree that the point of redistributive taxation is to improve the lot of poor and middle class citizens and not, as I sometimes suggest, to soak the rich (though to be honest, I would really enjoy to see the rich soaked, if only to satisfy my class resentment*).  Insofar that I disagree with Will’s post – and Douthat’s column more generally – it’s in the idea that “the effectiveness of those problems is compromised by the Democratic Party’s core constituencies.”  That is, I’m not convinced that core constituencies qua core constituencies have that much influence over the policy-making process.

Or in other words, insofar that constituent groups or interest groups can compromise the passage of legislation – and particularly very big legislation – it’s because they can take advantage of the various veto points in the legislative process.  The stimulus, to use one of Will’s examples, was so incredibly pork laden in part because – in the absence of overwhelming legislative support – the only way to get the bill through was to fatten it up with goodies and sweeteners.  The same will be true of the final health care bill: it’s not so much that any one group can exert so much influence that they override the preferences of the legislators and water down the bill considerably, as it is that legislators have to essentially buy votes by paying off whichever parochial interests happens to want something because there isn’t enough consensus to override said interests (Kevin Drum made this point really well not too long ago).

As it stands, our institutions give interest groups the room to have a ton of influence, and give legislators plenty of incentive to give into that influence.  So, to get back to Will’s post, the Left (and the Right for that matter) does need to reconsider the scope of its political ambitions.  I happen to think that both sides need to widen that scope, and aim not just for passing good policy, but for reforming the institutions of governance**.

*Most of which is a product of my time at UVA.

**It’s worth adding that I might be completely wrong about this entire post.

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3 thoughts on “Constituencies and interest groups might matter a little less than we think

  1. I’m about to pass out here but so far, so convinced. I guess where I’d be interested to push this is to see if this works/is true only at the federal government.

    I mean, with the specific example of the teachers’ unions, they’re not nearly as powerful on Capitol Hill as say AARP or industrial lobbyists. At the state level, however, they’re enormously influential. (except Texas)

    I don’t have any well-defined thoughts on this but the interplay of interests, core constituencies, federal and state governments seems…really interesting – in terms of looking at the policy-making process.

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  2. As it stands, our institutions give interest groups the room to have a ton of influence, and give legislators plenty of incentive to give into that influence. So, to get back to Will’s post, the Left (and the Right for that matter) does need to reconsider the scope of its political ambitions. I happen to think that both sides need to widen that scope, and aim not just for passing good policy, but for reforming the institutions of governance**.

    From my perspective, the politicians and political institutions do this because it gives them cover for their decisions. They may never come out and say “I voted against that bill because the teacher’s union told me to” but if they can use what the teachers have said tosheild themsleves, or to spread the blame they will. For all the narcicissim supposedly in politics these days, there’s also a lot of spinelessness

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  3. It seems a basic part of democracy that constituents support pols to get what they want and pols try to give groups that support them what they want. Democracy is about people voting for pols they like and who do things they like. I think criticizing pols you don’t like for just doing something to help there supporters is often a asinine complaint that misses the point of democracy. I think a better question is who are the constituents and how does doing something they want also help the general population. Inserting a loophole into a bill so some business can get away with something that should be illegal supports a constituent but hurts the population. But, for the sake of argument, giving money to hire new teachers helps the EVIL TEACHERS UNIONS ( and lord knows teachers have been the enemy of American for years) but plausibly helps students by suppling more teachers and smaller class sizes.

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