Ezra Klein has a great post showing that Obama’s first proposed budget is more conservative - when measured in the ratio of spending cuts to tax raises – than any of the deals under Clinton, Bush I or Reagan. Klein’s post includes the following, vivid graphic:
Klein thinks that the Democrats, should something like this deal go through, “were suckers for offering it.” A thought reinforced by Nate Silver’s recent post showing that as Republicans have become increasingly intransigent they have alienated yet more moderate voters. The irrationality seems difficult to apprehend – why are Democrats offering such a rotten budget deal, and being so politically wimpy?
This is, in fact, a regular complaint about the Democrats (and growing louder, see here and here). It is a complaint that stems from an assumption familiar to anyone acquainted with contemporary political science, or with what appears to be plain old common sense: congressmen will do whatever will maximize their chances of re-election. If they are rational in that way, it would seem this deal is irrational because it violates what the polls recommend. Of course, one might say that it isn’t always clear, especially in an off year, what will maximize electoral chances. There are no doubt many clever ways of saving the basic model of electoral politics – that it is the power of the ballot, and more or less only that power, that sways politicians.
But there is another possible explanation – that the ballot is not so powerful, or at least not the sole power, at play in the actions of representatives and political leaders. To be clear, we don’t mean here that there are other kinds of social power that might influence voters – like media monopolies skewing voter perceptions, or well-funded political action committees buying advertisements to sway voters.
The point is about influences on representatives themselves. There are, after all, battles that individual representatives, even parties, are sometimes willing to take a stand on, even if it might threaten electoral chances. There are, moreover, long periods between elections during which groups can exercise influence, of subtle and not-so-subtle varieties, over the thinking of politicians and those counselors around them. Parties also have commitments to certain core constituencies, fidelity to whom might override short-term electoral fortunes – itself a perfectly rational strategy since the ultimate aim of power is to do something concrete with it, not just keep it. As Corey Robin notes in a great post on the question of the Democrats’ ‘constituency,’ the problem for the Democrats may not be a failure to test the electoral winds properly, but a more fundamental problem with the Party’s conception of its core – as opposed to peripheral – constituents. Or, put another way, it may just expose the truth of the party – that it has no core, it is a catch-all party that drifts in, rather than attempts to exercise mastery over, its political environment.
Whatever the reason, it might be worth seeing the oddity of the Democrats’ behavior not as a failure to act rationally given the potential electoral support for a less conservative budget, but as something else. It might be evidence that our conventional view of democracy, and democratic power, is to say the least simplistic. Each person has only one vote, but the vote is only one form of power exercised in this process, and it may not even be the most important one.