The Party of No

by John Quiggin on March 23, 2010

One of the most striking features of the health care reform was that it was passed over the unanimous opposition of the Republican Party. This has all sorts of implications, not yet fully understood by anyone (certainly not me). To start with, it’s now clear that talk of bipartisanship, distinctions between moderate and hardline Republicans and so on, has ceased to have any meaning. If their failure to stop the health bill works against them, we may see occasional Republican votes for popular legislation that is going to get through in any case. Obama’s Employment Bill got only 6 Rep votes in the House, but passed the Senate 68-29 (or maybe 70-28) in what the NYT correctly called a rare bipartisan vote. At least the reporter on this piece, Carl Hulse, has caught up with reality, unlike the general run of Beltway pundits who still think that Obama should be pursuing bipartisanship.

In many countries, a party-line vote like this (at least on one side) would be nothing surprising. In Australia, for example, crossing the floor even once earns automatic expulsion from the Labor party and guarantees political death on the other side. But the US has never had a really tight party system, largely because, until recently,the Democrats (and before them, the Whigs) were always split on racial issues.

One problem arising from this is that the US system is more vulnerable than most to the kinds of crises that arise when one party is determined to prevent the other from governing. Passing a budget requires a majority in both Houses of Congress, and the signature of the President. If the Republicans win a majority in either House in November, it’s hard to see this happening. A repetition of the 1995 shutdown seems highly likely, and, with the financial system still very fragile, the consequences could be disastrous. The 1995 shutdown didn’t turn out too well for Newt Gingrich, but it doesn’t seem to have pushed him in the direction of moderation, and the current crop of Republicans make Newt look like a RINO.

A couple more thoughts.

The Republicans have become the Party of No in another sense. Having been the party of initiative since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, they are back to their more accustomed role as the party of reaction. The change can probably be dated back to the 2004 election, when Bush failed to privatize Social Security or maybe even in 2003 when electoral pressure pushed him into introducing the Prescription Drug Subsidy (a pork laden monster as you’d expect from Bush, but still an expansion of the welfare state).

The shift is certainly evident when you compare Obama’s first year in office with Clinton’s. Clinton was introducing policies demanded by the Republicans and their response (the Contract with America) was that he wasn’t doing nearly enough. Now, the Republicans have nothing of their own to offer, except more tax cuts (and, I guess, more torture). They are truly the Party of No.

Finally, a partial defense of Ezra Klein, who copped some flak from Glenn Greenwald for his suggestion that the uniformly negative Republican vote spelt an end to special interest votebuying. As Greenwald points out, this is false, and the big lobbies got to write large sections of Obama’s bill.

But, I think, Klein is right in observing that a particular kind of votebuying, what you might call ‘retail’, is on the way out. In a system with disciplined political parties, there’s not much point in buying individual members of Congress. Instead, interest groups have to work at the wholesale level, convincing party and factional leaders that their interests should be looked after. Unlike retail votebuying his is something of a zero-sum game, since whatever helps one party harms the other. Since politics is inevitably about competing interests to a large extent, interest groups are never going to go away. But there’s a case to made that it’s better tohave them work at the wholesale/party level, where the voters can hold the entire party to account.

Finally, like a lot of people on the left, I’ve been disappointed by the limited progress Obama has made[1]. But with the Republicans unified in obstruction, rightwing Democrats gain a huge amount of influence. It’s hard to believe that such a moderate package as this could produce so many defections, but it has. It will take both Democratic gains a significant shakeout of Blue Dogs and similar before anything much can be achieved. At this stage, the forthcoming election doesn’t look good in this respect, but November is a long time hence.

fn1. The excuses I’m making here don’t apply to Obama’s outright backsliding on civil liberties. Far from being constrained by Congress, Obama has sought to maintain Bush’s policies in the face of Congressional resistance.

{ 83 comments }

1

trotsky 03.23.10 at 5:44 am

Does Australia have district voting? Or national lists?

2

John Quiggin 03.23.10 at 5:48 am

District for House of Reps (IRV/preferential). Senate too complicated to explain, but basically state-level lists.

3

Liam 03.23.10 at 6:13 am

On the other hand there are many countries where coalition governments are the norm because no party is able to get a majority on its own. Thus they’re bipartisan or “multipartisan” by default.

4

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 7:17 am

“But with the Republicans unified in obstruction, rightwing Democrats gain a huge amount of influence.”

This is the operative sentence. In fact the Republicans achieve a more conservative outcome by uniformly opposing rather than negotiating for concessions; this way the Democrats are forced to cater to their most conservative members.

Which is also why David Frum was an idiot when he said it would be better for conservatives to have struck a bargain. It wouldn’t have been. The job is being done, better and more vigorously, by conservative Democrats.

5

Anspen 03.23.10 at 8:32 am

On the other hand there are many countries where coalition governments are the norm because no party is able to get a majority on its own. Thus they’re bipartisan or “multipartisan” by default.

Yes, but there is generally no expectation that parties that aren’t part of the ruling coalition will/should vote for governent policies. It’s not unusual, but the pundits won’t complain if crucial votes are purely along governent vs. opposition lines.

6

Pete 03.23.10 at 10:06 am

The “forced to negotiate with most rightwing members of the government” problem was evident in the UK under the last Major government, when the Ulster Unionists had excessive influence. It may happen again after the next election, which is looking to deliver a close distribution of seats.

7

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.23.10 at 10:18 am

But there’s a case to made that it’s better to have them work at the wholesale/party level, where the voters can hold the entire party to account.

That’s certainly true under a multi-party proportional representation model, but in a two-party system (or, at least, in this particular two-party system) both parties end up being owned by monied interests.

8

soru 03.23.10 at 10:59 am

In a system with disciplined political parties, there’s not much point in buying individual members of Congress.

Before someone else brings it up, it could be argued this scandal disproves that. Actually, I think it supports it, as:

1. the money involved was embarrassingly small
2. it demonstrates willingness to accept bribes, not willingness to offer them

9

The Raven 03.23.10 at 11:32 am

“But with the Republicans unified in obstruction, rightwing Democrats gain a huge amount of influence.”

The Democrats are being run by their conservatives, despite consistent polling showing that the public is to the left of the Democratic Party. The Republicans, I think, have little to do with the dominance of the conservative Democrats; roughly 50-75% of their Senate delegation is conservative.

10

Stuart 03.23.10 at 11:35 am

The “forced to negotiate with most rightwing members of the government” problem was evident in the UK under the last Major government, when the Ulster Unionists had excessive influence.

Is this really a problem though? They had lots of influence for four years and then basically none for a couple of decades before and after that period. So their voters get their views represented at a vaguely proportional amount to how many they are, but it just happens in concentrated periods of time rather than spread out.

11

Mrs Tilton 03.23.10 at 11:43 am

John,

race has certainly always played a huge role in American politics (in the past even more so than today), but I suspect the main reason for the lack of any true party discipline (Fraktionszwang, to use the marvellous German word) is structural. The US government (using the term in its narrow sense), unlike the governments of nations with a parliamentary system, does not depend on the confidence of the legislature. That and the de facto strict two-party system — one cannot effectively run off and start a new party as one might in France — ensure that a chief whip’s lot is not an happy one. Parties can, of course, impose some discipline by threatening to deny bolshie members various biscuits, and one of the two American parties actually does so (no prizes for guessing which). But in the US system, it is the (by American standards) high degree of party discipline the current Republican fraction has achieved that is the surprise, not that party discipline is generally much weaker than elsewhere. And though race, or more precisely the exploitation of fear and hatred of non-white “races”, informs a great deal of the modern Republican agenda, I don’t think it’s the explanation, or even the major factor in explaining, historically absent or weak party discipline in the USA.

12

alex 03.23.10 at 12:00 pm

“…and, I guess, more torture…”

Doesn’t that make them the party of “No, no, please, no!”

13

Phillip Hallam-Baker 03.23.10 at 1:10 pm

Where I think Frum got it wrong was in believing that the GOP cares about the policy outcome. Clearly they do not. It is all purely a matter of whether they can get re-elected and whether they can form a majority and get the best office space.

There is no particular problem with the GOP becoming a purely partisan political party, the parties are meant to disagree. The problem is that the current rules of the Senate do not support a system where the parties are purely partisan. The Republicans have not had 60 seats since there were 50 states in the union. If the parties are going to be purely partisan and mount filibusters on every issue, the threshold has to be reduced from 60 votes.

Where I agree with Frum is in his assessment of the success of their political strategy. HCR. From Tuesday onwards, most people are going to be hearing someone they know tell them that they were finally able to get healthcare as a result of the bill. As with all bills that deal with taxes and tax-like costs, the unpopular aspects of the bill will become a lot less significant after the event.

The bill is never going to get any more popular with the Fox News crowd. But nothing would be. And energizing your base does not help you very much if they only get 30,000 out to a rally.

14

Barry 03.23.10 at 1:25 pm

“In a system with disciplined political parties, there’s not much point in buying individual members of Congress.”

The USA doesn’t have disciplined political parties; it took massive bribes and the threat of catastrophic losses to get *something* through.

In the current state, bribing a few Dem senators is actually quite lucrative, and is being done. According to Wikipedia, Hadassah Lieberman (Mrs. Sentaor): “Hadassah has also worked for the lobbying company, APCO Associates, that had many pharmaceutical and healthcare corporations among its clients, as well as four major drug companies such as Pfizer. In March 2005, Hadassah was hired by Hill & Knowlton as “senior counselor” in the firm’s “health care and pharmaceuticals practice.” Hadassah’s work with the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries has led to controversy pertaining to her involvement with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation.”

Again according to Wikipedia, Susan Bayh (Mrs. Senator) “His wife Susan Bayh has been described by the Fort Wayne, Indiana Journal Gazette as a “professional board member” or “professional director”, having been a director of fourteen corporations since 1994 and being a director of eight as of 2006.[20] “

Since finding this stuff out, and noting the convictions of the odd Representative for taking a few hundred thousand dollars of bribes, I’ve decided that the definition of ‘bribe’ under US law is “an amount of money less than 1 million US dollars in a single year’. More than that is, ah, ‘good government’, or ‘putting good people on our board’.

15

Marc 03.23.10 at 1:42 pm

What makes the US particularly dysfunctional now is that there are a series of impediments to majority rule as well. Note that a climate bill, for example, *did* pass the house – but there is no prospect of a sufficient super-majority in the Senate. The House health care plan was superior to that of the Senate in many aspects, but it had to be seriously watered down. The only exception (unlike California) is passing a budget – and the current crop of crazies in the Republican party, I agree, would refuse to pass one without a laundry list of extremist ingredients if they were in charge.

The bottom line is simple: you can’t maintain a parliamentary system and require 3/5 majorities to pass things. The only question is whether the Democrats are smart enough to eliminate the counter-majority tactics in the next Congress, or whether they wait until Republicans have all of the levers of power and let them do the same. Because the current GOP will not let mere process get in the way of the One True Path.

16

Marc 03.23.10 at 1:47 pm

Another note on party discipline: outside observers may not have noticed it, but the GOP rank and file have become hyperconservative. There have been a small handful of party members who failed to toe the line on major votes (in the 2006-2008 period), and *all* of them lost to primary challengers or had to switch parties. You’d be surprised how effective it is to have a propaganda system working on the 5 minute hate principle.

17

tomslee 03.23.10 at 2:07 pm

@Mrs. Tilton: does the fact that the American cabinet doesn’t come from the legislatures also make a difference to party discipline?

18

Steve LaBonne 03.23.10 at 2:44 pm

The only question is whether the Democrats are smart enough to eliminate the counter-majority tactics in the next Congress, or whether they wait until Republicans have all of the levers of power and let them do the same.

Some questions answer themselves, you know? Yes, amazingly enough they did (barely) manage to pass some mess that they were pleased to call health care reform, but still this is the Democratic Party we’re talking about.

19

Sebastian 03.23.10 at 3:01 pm

The 3/5th majority thing is mostly propaganda. The Democrats have not tested a filibuster at any point. They’ve caved to the mere threat of filibuster each time. Conventional wisdom is that forcing the poor creatures to actually stay in the Congressional building for the 2 or 3 days it would take to break a real filibuster is just too hard. Or that forcing Republicans to read out of a phone book isn’t damaging (which hasn’t been tested in the youtube age has it?).

Break the filibuster (or at least try) one time on an important issue. And THEN if there are no repercussions, and THEN if Republicans still keep trying to pull it on everything, THEN complain that the system is broken.

20

Tom T. 03.23.10 at 3:54 pm

The shift is certainly evident when you compare Obama’s first year in office with Clinton’s. Clinton was introducing policies demanded by the Republicans and their response (the Contract with America) was that he wasn’t doing nearly enough.

This particular point misremembers the history. Clinton’s first year was taken up with comprehensive health care reform, which was obviously not a Republican policy, and demands from the left that he address the issue of gays in the military. The Brady Bill restricting handgun ownership and the Family and Medical Leave Act were similarly not Republican initiatives. NAFTA had supporters and opponents in both parties. Even his death-penalty expansion bill also included the assault weapon ban. He only moved right after the Republican congressional win in 1994.

21

Salient 03.23.10 at 4:41 pm

The Democrats have not tested a filibuster at any point.

What do you want them to “test” exactly? It takes something like 30-60 uninterrupted hours of Senate time just to call a vote, during which time no other Senate business can be conducted. Days of time lost. Do you want them to force a closure vote, days lost or no days lost?

They’ve caved to the mere threat of filibuster each time.

Come to think of it, we should see what Harry Reid has to say about that. Why hasn’t he ever filed a cloture vote? Why not stand up to at least a couple of these filibusters?

“We had to file cloture some 70 times last year,” Reid said. “Seventy times. That’s remarkably bad. Let’s change that.”

…So there you go. Feel heartened. (And stop spreading misinformation, please.) He has done what you asked of him, seventy times. 70 closure votes x 2 days processing time = at least 140 days spent doing exactly what you’re asking them to do, and assigning only 2 days processing per cloture vote is generous.

22

bianca steele 03.23.10 at 4:55 pm

@20 Don’t forget China. The Hong Kong and 2nd-generation Taiwanese I knew back in 1992 were not happy about Clinton after that.

23

laura 03.23.10 at 5:00 pm

“But the US has never had a really tight party system, largely because, until recently,the Democrats (and before them, the Whigs) were always split on racial issues.”

Nope. We have weak parties mostly because of our electoral system.

24

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 5:17 pm

“The Republicans, I think, have little to do with the dominance of the conservative Democrats; roughly 50-75% of their Senate delegation is conservative.”

I think the unified opposition of the Republicans significantly emboldened Democrats like Nelson and Landrieu to stand athwart history and yell stop until their objections were accommodated.

If the Republicans didn’t put up unified opposition, they were simply going to get rolled by the Pelosi machine. The Democrats would be able to swap down any internal dissension by pointing to the agreement coming from Republicans (“why are you disagreeing with us when the GOP is cooperating”) and the momentum, given the limited influence of the minority in Congress, would push the legislation leftward, to a point where it would be a dilemma for the GOP to either stay on or get off the bandwagon, which if they do would give the Democrats an image booster proving that the Republicans were not bipartisan.

Even if I were Mitch McConnell, I don’t think I would have wanted to engage in this game of cat-and-mouse with Pelosi et cetera. It’s like picking up dimes in front of a steamroller.

25

bianca steele 03.23.10 at 5:21 pm

P H-B@13
As far as I can tell, Frum’s function is to make believe there is a faction in the GOP that cares about policy, not just about getting and holding power.

26

Phillip Hallam-Baker 03.23.10 at 6:14 pm

Bianca@25

Yep, he is kind of like Max in The Producers asking how much money they will be investing in the show. Frum just doesn’t get what he has signed up for.

He has only just realized that the GOP works for Fox News and not the other way round.

27

bianca steele 03.23.10 at 6:22 pm

Nathan Lane or Zero Mostel?

I think at this point Frum could do or say or support Big Bird for Congress, as long as he keeps criticizing Sarah Palin and the worst of the right-wing, conservative excesses, he’ll keep the “centrists” feeling good about pulling the lever for “R.” You may be right that he hasn’t figured it out yet. On the other hand, maybe he really believes the nonsense about hippies and all that and thinks only the Republican Party can make America moral again. (He’s Canadian, you know. Why are so many of our pundits Canadian? Brooks is actually Canadian too.)

28

bianca steele 03.23.10 at 6:22 pm

“do or say anything, even support Big Bird”

29

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 6:54 pm

“On the other hand, maybe he really believes the nonsense about hippies and all that and thinks only the Republican Party can make America moral again. (He’s Canadian, you know. Why are so many of our pundits Canadian? Brooks is actually Canadian too.)”

Coming from a Canadian, it’s because it’s hard to find such a living in Canada. Canada is a conformist, Presbyterian, philosophically stifling place. The politics are provincial, and the people are happy to keep it that way. It’s like a somewhat freer version of Sweden.

30

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 7:00 pm

The late Robertson Davies, the pre-eminent Canadian novelist, once remarked that he was an Anglican by persuasion because he found Presbyterianism, which had always been the dominant social and religious ethos in English Canada, remarkably cold and unsympathetic.

Unsurprisingly, however, the cold and unsympathetic timbre of Presbyterianism, despite the passing of religious feeling itself in Canada, has remained in the social character of Canada, and it would be highly impossible for someone like Frum and Brooks and Krauthammer to breathe in the Canadian air. So they move southwards.

31

Marc 03.23.10 at 7:36 pm

Sebastian: you should know that it doesn’t work that way. Senate rules permit a single person to tie up the chamber while requiring 60 votes to stop it.

The Democrats might be able to simply bulldoze the rules, midterm, but the practical consequences would be dire because of the elaborate and cumbersome rules of the place. All the GOP would need to do would be to refuse unanimous consent to waiving an ocean of procedural rules and insist on their right to roll-call votes on every bit of minutia. The Senate would be stopped cold.

The most likely path for reform is a massive rewrite of the rules when the new Senate is sworn in – this isn’t something you can do on a whim or easily. And it suffers from the collective vs. individual interest problem – Senators would be voting to reduce their individual ability to get their way in exchange for the ability of their party to enact a broader agenda.

The super-majority aspect really has been the difference between getting things done and not.

On the topic of race, by the way, I’m really surprised to see disagreement on the central role that it played in the cult of bipartisanship. There were a lot of Southern racist Democrats who were also populists, and this led to a different set of coalitions when combined with a strong economically conservative/socially moderate northern republican wing. Northern moderates were driven from the GOP and replaced with Southern whites, who in turn left the Democratic party over civil rights and religious wedge issues.

32

piglet 03.23.10 at 8:13 pm

“Coming from a Canadian, it’s because it’s hard to find such a living in Canada. Canada is a conformist, Presbyterian, philosophically stifling place. The politics are provincial, and the people are happy to keep it that way. It’s like a somewhat freer version of Sweden.”

I took your first sentence to mean that in Canada, one can’t get rich (or at least more than handsomely paid) for spewing the kind of reactionary nonsense as these gentlemen do for a living. Which is plausible. What follows is rather confusing however. You truly mean to say that Frum moved South because of the intellectual or philosophical vibrancy that the US, in particular Washington DC, in particular the GOP headquarter, has to offer??? Hmmm.

33

piglet 03.23.10 at 8:14 pm

The most likely explanation, come to think of it, is probably that these guys moved South because of America’s superior health care system.

34

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 9:04 pm

“You truly mean to say that Frum moved South because of the intellectual or philosophical vibrancy that the US, in particular Washington DC, in particular the GOP headquarter, has to offer??? Hmmm.”

I truly encourage you to live in Canada to experience for yourself the (non-existent) intellectual vibrancy of the country. Intellectual conformism to the stifling collectivist vision is the order of the day in most of the country. Political philosophy is in a very sorry state. Most pundits can’t even comprehend the equality vs. freedom tradeoff.

And I don’t mean get rich. I mean you truly can’t make a decent living doing conservative punditry. Nor liberal punditry, really. Canadian pundits are more newspaper filler columnists and less political analysts.

I really long for the day when Canadian political analysts collectively wake up to the very simple fact that you can either have more equality or more freedom, but each at the expense of the other. And take account of this fact in their analyses, rather than blandly offering foolish and delusional perorations on the unblemished greatness of socialized medicine.

35

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 9:05 pm

And yes, Washington DC has a far richer intellectual life than Ottawa.

36

Lee A. Arnold 03.23.10 at 9:11 pm

Myles SG: “you can either have more equality or more freedom, but each at the expense of the other”

Still awaiting any conclusive proof of this argument.

37

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 9:15 pm

I mean, how hard is this to understand? Canada has traditionally been a very Calvinistic, very Presbyterian country, far more so than the United States. Philosophically speaking, Canada is still a Presbyterian country. And Presbyterian countries don’t do intellectual diversity or do-your-own-thing. They do conformity. And they do heavy moralizing (witness the ridiculous sermonizing and moralizing about Canadian peacekeeping).

Scotland has only recently lifted what is pretty much a ban, which lasted for five centuries, on Christmas (by the Presbyterian Church), in 1958.

38

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 9:16 pm

“Still awaiting any conclusive proof of this argument.”

See James Fallows, essay on Carter.

39

Lee A. Arnold 03.23.10 at 9:18 pm

Why don’t you state it, instead?

40

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 9:21 pm

What is there to state? This is a fundamental principle of political science. You can’t have both, ceteris paribus, within the same economic and technological framework.

41

Lee A. Arnold 03.23.10 at 9:33 pm

Innovations regularly increase both freedom and equality. If you reduce transaction costs overall it is possible to increase both freedom and equality. An institution like universal health care can be structured to increase both freedom and equality. They are not mutually exclusive by definition and it is certainly not a fundamental principle of anything.

42

Sam C 03.23.10 at 9:34 pm

Myles SG: (at the risk of derailing) Equality of what? Freedom to do what? Talk of the single ‘equality vs. freedom tradeoff’ is meaningless. Some kinds of equality are necessary conditions of some kinds of freedom, and vice versa.

And to ‘Political philosophy is in a very sorry state’ the obvious response is: Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka, Jacob Levy, Tom Hurka, Jan Narveson, James Tully…

43

Substance McGravitas 03.23.10 at 9:58 pm

And yes, Washington DC has a far richer intellectual life than Ottawa.

Which is why Canadian pundits move south to back the intellectual vibrancy of the Republican Party. Please. Canadians move to the US for bucks, like many folks.

44

piglet 03.23.10 at 10:09 pm

“I truly encourage you to live in Canada to experience for yourself”
Been there, done that.

“Canadian pundits are more newspaper filler columnists and less political analysts.”

As opposed to who? Frum, Brooks??? I guess we should better agree to disagree on certain value judgments. I don’t mean to deny that the US has intellectual vibrancy – in certain circles, it has – but intellectual diversity and philosophical nonconformism are hardly the defining features of the public discourse in this country, not to mention conservative discourse.

“And they [Presbyterian countries] do heavy moralizing” – Canada? What the heck are you talking about? Nobody does more public moralizing than conservative American pundits. Only in the US is “public morality” even considered a suitable topic of political discourse. And no Western country is more restrictive with respect to alcohol use, public nudity, sexual behavior and so on. No other country where you can observe fundamentalist Christians displaying “You’ll all go to hell” placards during harmless Mardi Gras festivities. Maybe this – the famous culture war discourse so unique to the United States – is part of what makes the US “intellectually exciting” for people like you. Maybe Canada (or Sweden or …) is truly a boring country, a country where conservatives shrug their shoulders over same sex marriage instead of starting a crusade, and where politicians campaigning for abstinence only education for teenagers would simply be laughed off the stage. Maybe you are right, a certain thrill, or should we say shrillness, is missing.

45

lemuel pitkin 03.23.10 at 10:28 pm

Passing a budget requires a majority in both Houses of Congress, and the signature of the President. If the Republicans win a majority in either House in November, it’s hard to see this happening. A repetition of the 1995 shutdown seems highly likely, and, with the financial system still very fragile, the consequences could be disastrous.

This is an important point, and I don’t think I’ve seen it made anywhere else. Has anyone written something good about how this scenario could play out?

46

Myles SG 03.23.10 at 10:54 pm

““And they [Presbyterian countries] do heavy moralizing” – Canada? What the heck are you talking about? Nobody does more public moralizing than conservative American pundits. Only in the US is “public morality” even considered a suitable topic of political discourse. And no Western country is more restrictive with respect to alcohol use, public nudity, sexual behavior and so on. No other country where you can observe fundamentalist Christians displaying “You’ll all go to hell” placards during harmless Mardi Gras festivities. Maybe this – the famous culture war discourse so unique to the United States – is part of what makes the US “intellectually exciting” for people like you. Maybe Canada (or Sweden or …) is truly a boring country, a country where conservatives shrug their shoulders over same sex marriage instead of starting a crusade, and where politicians campaigning for abstinence only education for teenagers would simply be laughed off the stage. Maybe you are right, a certain thrill, or should we say shrillness, is missing.”

I do hope you are not a professor (the is an academics blogging site I surmise), because you would be the most idiotic and ignorant professor, ever. That’s all.

If you can’t make the distinction between corporative/collectivistic and individualistic moralism, then there is really no point arguing with you. Really, I am just hoping you are not a professor or an academic. For the sake of society.

47

Phillip Hallam-Baker 03.23.10 at 10:55 pm

@45 Not necessarily

The main reason that the GOP got themselves whipped up into such a lather in the first is that the Democrats got to the magic 60 seats. That meant that the only way that the GOP could block anything was with a bipartisan filibuster.

The result was that idiots like Ben Nelson decided to use the situation to their advantage and force the majority to accept the will of the minority. This pleased the GOP because it showed the Democrats in disarray.

Much harder for the GOP to exploit the situation if they have a majority in either house. They will be forced to put together a budget and actually argue for it. They can’t just sit on the sidelines and fling poo like they have been doing since the start of this Congress.

And even in that situation, Obama has a huge amount of leverage, he can block any budget that increases the deficit. He can scrub any GOP tax cuts for billionaires.

48

subdoxastic 03.23.10 at 11:53 pm

Leaving aside for the moment the absurdity of attempting to define an entire nation of people as being on thing or another (Calvinist, Presbyterian, Ceollectivist, etc.) I’m intrigued as to what Myles SG has had to say.

Conformity… in its acting as the final station for the underground railroad?
Conformity… in its preference for a mosaic rather than a melting pot? (although I think they can do much better in that regard)
Conformity… in its official bilingualism?

Or were we supposed to allow you to magically negate Quebec (definitely not Calvinist).

And Myles SG, don’t worry I’m not a prof. You’ll have to come up with some other ad hominem attack for me.

49

PQuincy 03.23.10 at 11:57 pm

My sense — based on several decades’ experience, but not on systematic analysis — is that the current solidarity of GOP voting is moderately unusual (it feels very unusual) for American politics. The universal winner-take-all voting system, plus historical diversity (with histories of race being one of the most important forms), have led to endlessly reshuffled coalitions with poor internal discipline. The small size and long terms in the Senate also make party discipline very weak, compared to Parliamentary systems.

My first guess is that application of modern campaign technologies (high media investments, intensive advertising, etc.) on the part of the Republican party has, unusually, made the party something of an arbitor for legislators because it is able to threaten effective primary challenges to any defectors (See Spector, Arlen). This threat is reinforced by low turnout and a preponderance of high-commitment voters during primaries, and has enabled the Republican party to establish an unheard-of level of pressure on legislators to conform. Because the primary voters who make this pressure work tend to be from the right fringe (just as the most reliable primary voters for Democrats are progressives and union members with institutional incentives), the outcome has been a far-right and disciplined Republican party. (The Democrats have not come nearly as far, though the party apparatus has clearly seen the light and is trying).

Question: are there counter-incentives or reactions built into the dynamics of increasing party discipline on both sides, or will this trend continue. Please be concise, and cite relevant literature.

50

bianca steele 03.24.10 at 12:08 am

@27 Not Mel Brooks.

51

Andrew Rollason 03.24.10 at 12:31 am

In the 15 years that I have been following politics in Australia, crossing the floor has never even once resulted in the expulsion of a member from either side of politics either Labor or Liberal; therefore your assumption is so wrong as to be laughable.

Furthermore unlike the USA, voters don’t have to register to vote for a political party, voting is compulsory in Australia which usually means a 98+% turnout, and also unlike the USA the cabinet in Australia is made up of members from the House of Representatives which means that every single one of them has been elected to parliament.

What happens if in the case of Tasmania where following the election on Saturday, it could be possible to end up with a coalition government made up of the entire lower house? Crossing the floor by someone would be more or less expected at every division surely?

52

socialrepublican 03.24.10 at 1:28 am

“And Presbyterian countries don’t do intellectual diversity or do-your-own-thing. They do conformity”

Tell Adam Smith that

53

lemuel pitkin 03.24.10 at 1:47 am

Much harder for the GOP to exploit the situation if they have a majority in either house. They will be forced to put together a budget and actually argue for it. They can’t just sit on the sidelines and fling poo like they have been doing since the start of this Congress.

Forced by … who, exactly?

54

Myles SG 03.24.10 at 2:02 am

“Conformity… in its acting as the final station for the underground railroad?
Conformity… in its preference for a mosaic rather than a melting pot? (although I think they can do much better in that regard)
Conformity… in its official bilingualism?”

Conformity has nothing to do with the first, but provincial moralism, yes. Just as Northerners felt themselves infinitely moral in railing against slavery (when it was simply the convenience of a different northern climate and economic patterns), and contemporary Northerners thought slavery a distinction of moral rather than a practical or economic origin, so did Canadian Methodists think themselves destined for heaven based on their oh-so-courageous (behind the border) fight against the Peculiar Institution. The second (mosaic), yes. Very much indeed. To force, by official diktat, a particular, and arbitrary vision of national culture (in this case, multiculturalism), rather than letting it evolve naturally, is very much a case of IDEOLOGICAL conformism. Which is far worse than cultural conformism. A cultural homogenous people is still capable of freedom; an ideological homogenous people is not.

Official bilingualism is an act of IDEOLOGICAL conformism which suppresses personal freedom in linguistic choice. And yes, it is also conformism pure and simple. The mandatory learning of French (or any other language, really) infringes on personal freedom and choice, and infringements on personal autonomy are by definition conformism. It is an act of ideological, political, and sociological conformism. What is the point of bilingualism, other than for the nation to converge and conform in one, single ideal where everyone speaks both languages? If you can’t grasp this concept, I can’t help you.

Freedom, as understand by its truest proponent, is no longer valued in Canada as it once was. It is unfortunate, but it is true.

55

Myles SG 03.24.10 at 2:10 am

I am still surprised that visitors to such a site as Crooked Timber are not capable of such basic philosophical distinctions as to confuse official bilingualism and other practical policies with being the opposite of conformism.

I mean, this is like really, really, really, really, really basic stuff. Freshman stuff. This is the stuff that should fail philosophy papers.

How is one even to have a reasoned debate when the concept of reasoning is lost? There are good arguments to be made, in fact, that Canada still values freedom very much and is a very free country, and the argument could also be made that it is in some ways freer than the U.S., but those arguments would have nothing, absolute nothing, to do with bilingualism, the Underground Railroad, evangelicals, Mardi Gras, “cultural mosaic”, and so on. Those aren’t even proper arguments.

56

Substance McGravitas 03.24.10 at 2:15 am

The mandatory learning of French (or any other language, really) infringes on personal freedom and choice, and infringements on personal autonomy are by definition conformism.

I see. How about teaching math?

57

tomslee 03.24.10 at 2:39 am

@55: “Those aren’t even proper arguments.”

Perhaps that’s because “Canada is a conformist, Presbyterian, philosophically stifling place” is not a refutable claim, but a gross generalization. I mean, Canada has plenty of faults (don’t get me started) but cultural Presbyterianism is a bit tricky to pin down, what with all the non-Presbyterians around here.

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sg 03.24.10 at 3:47 am

To force, by official diktat, a particular, and arbitrary vision of national culture (in this case, multiculturalism), rather than letting it evolve naturally, is very much a case of IDEOLOGICAL conformism.

There are so many grades of FAIL in this one statement that the writer can only be qualified for one thing – conservative punditry in the US. Go siphon up those big bucks before Obamacare destroys the economy, Myles SG, they need you very badly!

59

Myles SG 03.24.10 at 4:09 am

“I mean, Canada has plenty of faults (don’t get me started) but cultural Presbyterianism is a bit tricky to pin down, what with all the non-Presbyterians around here.”

You don’t have to be at all religious to be culturally Presbyterian. In fact, many NDPers come from the most empire-builder, staunchly imperialist backgrounds. And they, by the way, have a huge tendency to be the most culturally Presbyterian party in Canada. You just have to have absorbed those values of civil life which Presbyterianism has instill in the general consciousness.

60

John Quiggin 03.24.10 at 4:59 am

Myles (and others), I’m not really getting anything out of this discussion of Canada. Can we drop it please, and focus on the US situation.

61

John Quiggin 03.24.10 at 5:18 am

Tom T., I take your point. I was thinking of his (1992 campaign) promise to “end welfare as we know it”.

Mrs T., “The US government (using the term in its narrow sense), unlike the governments of nations with a parliamentary system, does not depend on the confidence of the legislature”. That’s true as compared to, say, the current British system. But, in the 17th-18th century British parliamentary system, the King picked his own ministers, and the Parliament’s control was exercised through the power of the purse. That model, with the President replacing the King was adopted in the US.

Hence, the House of Representatives is able to close down the government by failing to pass a budget. In this sense, the executive does depend on the confidence of the legislature. A suitably partisan originalist judge (not hard to find for the GOP) could argue that, in this situation, the legislature should prevail.

62

Sebastian H 03.24.10 at 5:56 am

“Sebastian: you should know that it doesn’t work that way. Senate rules permit a single person to tie up the chamber while requiring 60 votes to stop it.

The Democrats might be able to simply bulldoze the rules, midterm, but the practical consequences would be dire because of the elaborate and cumbersome rules of the place. All the GOP would need to do would be to refuse unanimous consent to waiving an ocean of procedural rules and insist on their right to roll-call votes on every bit of minutia. The Senate would be stopped cold.”

But this is theoretically done with the conceit of debate. And the one person who can tie up the Senate has to keep debating. Continually. All the time if you force him to. Which is why when actually put to the test, filibusters eventually run into reading out of a telephone book or what have you. And last I checked, once he gives up the floor, you don’t have to let him back.

It is true that you can’t function if every vote went that way. But it has been more than a generation since it was actually forced. There aren’t youtube vidoes of a Senator being an idiot out of a phone book yet. And even if a few of them have constituencies stupid enough to put up with that, they would lose moderates by droves.

It isn’t so much that the system is broken. It is broken so long as Democrats never bother to call the Republicans on the threat. Yes, I’m sure it would take a few days of constantly inhabiting the Congressional building. We pay them alot of money. Maybe they should earn it one week every now and then.

63

Matt McIrvin 03.24.10 at 6:04 am

“Unlike the USA, voters don’t have to register to vote for a political party”

Just to be clear:

In most states, Americans do have to register to vote some time in advance of an election (personally I think this is a bad thing).

At that time, in most states, voters can state a party affiliation, and this makes them eligible to vote in that party’s primary elections. It is not mandatory to state a party affiliation in order to vote in general elections, nor is this a binding promise to vote for that party’s candidates in the general election.

(You probably understand this already, but I’ve noticed some international confusion on the subject; there are many people who think Americans have to tell the government how they’re going to vote when they register.)

64

Mrs Tilton 03.24.10 at 7:38 am

Anybody else getting the impression that Myles SG, having found Atlas Shrugged intimidatingly thick, settled instead for the comic-book version of The Road to Serfdom and has found it the greatest epiphany of his 15 years?

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Myles SG 03.24.10 at 8:57 am

“Anybody else getting the impression that Myles SG, having found Atlas Shrugged intimidatingly thick, settled instead for the comic-book version of The Road to Serfdom and has found it the greatest epiphany of his 15 years?”

Atlas Shrugged is also trite, crude, vulgar, and contrived.

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Myles SG 03.24.10 at 8:59 am

And I don’t suppose you actually think there is much to mock about The Road to Serfdom? It is a great book, and liberals and conservatives alike (I recall Keynes giving it a rave review) thought so. I am not sure your silly attempt at sarcasm is of much import.

67

Myles SG 03.24.10 at 9:14 am

“Myles (and others), I’m not really getting anything out of this discussion of Canada. Can we drop it please, and focus on the US situation.”

To start with, I am not convinced the GOP will win the House at the next cycle. As much as the current noise and hubbub about health-care seem frightening, it is temporary and will pass as soon as the bill establishes credence. To take over the House requires a very large number of seats to changes hands, and I don’t quite think the country is quite as stirred up into an insurrectionary mood as the GOP would prefer.

And if they do control the House, I doubt very much will happen. They might attempt to pass a fairly conservative budget, but the nature of such things is that Obama will not veto unless it is incredibly conservative, because Boehner is not Gingrich and probably won’t repeat Gringrich’s mistake, and will not leave any room for Obama to justify the veto. If the GOP controls the Senate (which is very unlikely) as well, Obama will have to do as Congress says unless Congress is being supremely unreasonable, and I don’t see Boehner and McConnell being supremely unreasonable, if only to undermine Obama’s authority. Giving Obama veto justification doesn’t undermine him, but rather strengthens him. Obama, on the other hand, will have a disincentive to being unreasonable with his veto, because his re-election will be weaker than Clinton’s.

If the GOP only controls the House, they will have a good deal of leverage at getting a few conservatives provisions into the budget. The chance of a House-Senate impasse is unlikely, because unless the Democrats are electorally insane they are not going to fight a freshly elected House to the death. But given the balance of power, the potency of the GOP House will be relatively limited. And because of House-Senate negotiations, whatever passes should not present a serious problem for Obama, unless he intends on not getting re-elected.

The alternative scenario, where the GOP controls the Senate but not the House, is electorally impossible. Simply not possible mathematically.

But of course, I am not sure the GOP will actually control the House. It might be a hung house, where neither party has genuine majority, with the Blue Dogs straddling the middle. But whatever happens, Pelosi’s days as Speaker are surely limited. She has done her thing, and at this point in time she’s more an albatross than Nike for the Democrats’ electoral prospects. It’s just far too easy to run against a over-Botoxed San Franciscan liberal from the depths of Maryland machine politics, ruling the Congress.

68

Martin Bento 03.24.10 at 9:37 am

Sebastian. Reid called an all-night filibuster in 2005, largely to appease those calling for a real filibuster. Then he relented because he didn’t want to stay up all night either . To me, the filibustering party should be the sole one required to hang out, but that’s not how it is. And they don’t all have to hang out. Just one. And they don’t have to talk. It is explained here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/23/the-myth-of-the-filibuste_n_169117.html

69

Alex 03.24.10 at 9:40 am

Scotland has only recently lifted what is pretty much a ban, which lasted for five centuries, on Christmas (by the Presbyterian Church), in 1958.

What on earth are you on about?

70

Gareth Rees 03.24.10 at 9:55 am

Yes, surely the relevant year is 1871 (Bank Holidays Act), not 1958?

71

dsquared 03.24.10 at 10:13 am

Public holidays are set by local authorities in Scotland, and don’t follow the official list of bank holidays (also the Scottish banks follow the English calendar these days anyway). I am quite prepared to believe that there were one or two holdout counties that didn’t declare Christmas Day to be a public holiday until the 1950s, but that’s rather different from banning it – you might as well say that England still bans Burns Night.

72

Myles SG 03.24.10 at 12:33 pm

“I am quite prepared to believe that there were one or two holdout counties that didn’t declare Christmas Day to be a public holiday until the 1950s, but that’s rather different from banning it – you might as well say that England still bans Burns Night.”

The Presbyterian Church didn’t recognize Christmas as any sort of holiday until very recently. And this was back when the word of the Presbyterian Moderator was Law. If the Church said no Christmas, then it was no Christmas. There really, literally, were no celebrations of Christmas.

And it’s not just the local authorities. Christmas, unfortunately, was a working day, which meant serious celebration of it as any sort of a public occasion was impossible.

I mean, what sort of anal-retentive society couldn’t even get itself to declare Christmas a public holiday? Christmas, the most important holiday of the year?

Shocking, uh?

73

belle le triste 03.24.10 at 12:57 pm

Until not so long ago there was quite wide variation what day was actually taken to celebrate the present-giving, and so on — and Scotland, being widely anti-Papist, tended to favour Hogmanay as the day it took off for Christmas, rather than Christmas itself (which was of course celebrated, just not with a holiday). The Dutch pick a day much earlier in December, also.

Myles SG’s appalled shock that the entire world does not organise its calendar to match the own conventions he is most used to is amusing, given his pompous denunciation of the closed-mindedness of everyone except himself.

74

alex 03.24.10 at 1:01 pm

Hey, Myles, “Fuck off, you cretinous troll”. High enough level of discourse for ya?

75

bianca steele 03.24.10 at 1:50 pm

@63 In some states in the US, it is not mandatory to register with a party in order to vote in that party’s primaries. In Massachusetts, until maybe 10 years ago, when you voted in a primary, your registration was automatically switched to the party’s, until you switched it back, but now you can just vote in whatever primary you like.

76

piglet 03.24.10 at 1:53 pm

Let’s drop it. Myles can only be a crude parody of a right-winger. What gave him/her away is that no real right-winger currently alive could be so bizarre as to complain about anti-slavery activism as being “conformist” or to complain that the absence of an official “national culture” sanctioned by the Canadian government is some kind of cultural diktatur. This is too obvious, Myles. You are just trying to badmouth conservatism.

77

chris y 03.24.10 at 2:25 pm

I mean, what sort of anal-retentive society couldn’t even get itself to declare Christmas a public holiday? Christmas, the most important holiday of the year?

Christmas isn’t the most important holiday of the christian church for god’s sake. Why should the presbyterians change their position to oblige the commercial lobby? They weren’t preventing anybody taking a day off to stuff their faces with turkey, and I don’t see why they should care whether it was publicly celebrated or not.

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bianca steele 03.24.10 at 2:55 pm

Wikipedia’s article on “conformism” says nothing about value judgments or connotations, negative or positive. The people who wrote that article, right or wrong, apparently don’t see the value judgments as essential to the definition of the term. I won’t presume to guess whether Myles does.

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bianca steele 03.24.10 at 3:01 pm

Though he doesn’t seem concerned about conformism within communities, either. But you can’t get everything in the comment box. He doesn’t say whether he thinks of “freedom” primarily as the freedom to prefer Schoenberg to Tchaikovsky or as the freedom to prefer Laurie Anderson to Brahms lieder either.

80

Myles SG 03.24.10 at 8:29 pm

“Hey, Myles, “Fuck off, you cretinous troll”. High enough level of discourse for ya?”

My point is proven. I rest my case.

“Let’s drop it. Myles can only be a crude parody of a right-winger. What gave him/her away is that no real right-winger currently alive could be so bizarre as to complain about anti-slavery activism as being “conformist” or to complain that the absence of an official “national culture” sanctioned by the Canadian government is some kind of cultural diktatur.”

My point is proven again. If this isn’t the closing of the Western mind, I don’t know what is.

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Walt 03.24.10 at 8:40 pm

You don’t know what it is.

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Barry 03.24.10 at 9:04 pm

Myles SG: “I do hope you are not a professor (the is an academics blogging site I surmise), because you would be the most idiotic and ignorant professor, ever. That’s all.

If you can’t make the distinction between corporative/collectivistic and individualistic moralism, then there is really no point arguing with you. Really, I am just hoping you are not a professor or an academic. For the sake of society.”

Your concession of intellectual defeat is accepted.

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John Quiggin 03.24.10 at 9:22 pm

Please, please, don’t feed the troll.

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