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Institutions are still important, even in America

I try not to venture into American politics much on this blog but there is one thing that’s really bothered me that I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere.  I know this is somewhat outdated, as Rick Perry is yesterday’s news, but why did no one challenge him on the idea that he would cut Congress’ pay in half?

“The idea that [a congressman or woman] makes three times what the average family makes is really obscene,” he said. “[They] need to have their salaries cut in half, they need to spend half as much on their budget, and they need to be in Washington half the time.”

It is somewhat depressing that in no debate, no member of the media, or no other candidate, bothered to ask Perry where in the Constitution the president has the authority to determine congressional pay.  If someone did, Perry’s famous three branches of government mishap would have have become his second most embarrassing debate moment.  That’s because the president does not determine congressional pay. Congress does.  The president is not the boss of congress, even though people only seem to hold the former accountable.   It’s this same lack of knowledge of how American institutions work that leads otherwise smart people to speculate how a third party president could really change things.

Institutions still matter

I try not to stray too much in US politics on this blog, only because that information is so easily obtained elsewhere.  With that being said, party and electoral systems are well within the scope here so please read Hans Noel and Seth Masket’s new article in the Los Angeles Times.  The arguments shouldn’t be novel to readers of this blog but apparently it’s possible to be very successful while making the opposite points, so it’ s good to get this out there.

I think the key parts here aren’t the explanation for why we only have two major parties, but the defense against those who see parties as the problem.

All of this seems unfair. Why should these two parties have such an advantage? That’s the wrong way to look at it. The Democrats and the Republicans are not our overlords. They are us. They are the natural creations of politically concerned citizens who want to make a difference. And because in a democracy, the more people you have, the more chance you have of making a difference, parties organize together to have strength in numbers.

That is democracy: people joining together, compromising among themselves to arrive at policies, and trying to get those policies enacted.

If you’re not content with the way this country is being governed, one of the best ways to change it is to get involved with one of the existing parties and work to nominate and elect candidates at all levels of government who will fight for the things you care about. Odds are, one of the parties will want much of what you want. Pining for an independent, third-party dictator is not only a waste of your time, but if you somehow got what you wanted, you’d quickly find it wasn’t what you wanted at all.

Pretty much my thoughts. Organized people, elected by citizens, debating policy in deliberative bodies is a wonderful thing.    People who like democracy should not get so upset when they see it in action.

The Party Still Decides

The Party Decides

Walter Shapiro has an article in the New Republic about the overhyping of the Iowa Straw Polls.

Over the years, I have reached a different conclusion: The Iowa Straw Poll is one of the most insidious events in politics. Even though the straw poll is about as scientific as sorcery, political reporters over-hype the results and pretend that they mean something.

I’m normally very sympathetic to these arguments, and I get what Shapiro is getting at.  Unfortunately, I have to disagree with his premise, and I wonder if he secretly does too.   Shapiro starts by noting how unrepresentative of the larger Republican party the  Straw Poll is:

 In November 2008, 682,000 Iowa voters cast their ballots for McCain. The 119,000 Republicans who participated in the 2008 caucuses were the party stalwarts. But the 14,000 Republicans who voted in the 2007 straw poll were a microcosm of that microcosm—just 12 percent of the caucus attendees and a microscopic 2 percent of McCain voters. N

Yes, the event may only be made up of the most hardcore Republicans, but who does Shapiro thinks decide primaries?  I’ll again encourage people to read my professor, Hans Noel’s book, The Party Decides, to get an idea of how modern presidential primaries really work.  Events like the Straw Poll are a good way for party elites to test the loyalty of candidates to their policy preferences, while simultaneously examining their electablity.  These events may play a large roll in the “invisible primary” that is actually quite crucial in determining who winds up getting the party’s nomination.

But my problem with Shapiro’s argument is not  just that these elite events matter, it’s that he himself seems to admit that in his piece, which at times almost contradicts itself. As an example, Shapiro states:

Given the skewed nature of the event, you might think journalists would ignore the results. But, on the contrary, too many of my colleagues in the press inflate the straw poll’s significance, because they are desperate for any tangible numbers to enliven the long wait until convention delegates are actually selected.

Then, in the very next sentence!

And so the consequences of failure at the straw poll can be dramatic. In 1999, a disappointing sixth-place finish at Ames forced Lamar Alexander out of the race immediately after the results were in. The poll also fatally damaged the campaign of Elizabeth Dole, who dropped out two months later.

Ending the campaigns of two candidates doesn’t sound like an insignificant event. I sympathize with Shapiro’s frustration over something that’s important only because we say it’s important (cable news with its small audience comes to mind), but that doesn’t mean it’s not important!  One could make the same argument about overstating importance to a wide number of things such as the Iowa Caucus itself.  After all, it’s only so many delegates, but we make it out to be a big deal! For better or worse, it is a big deal and I think it would be wise to pay attention to what happens there.

Joementum can save Washington

Thomas Friedman has a new column out, which advocates the need for a third party in America to fix our broken system.   This argument gets thrown out there quite frequently, but I was a bit surprised that I had to hear it from Friedman, who managed to write one of the most clueless articles I’ve read in a long time.  It starts out with a comparison to the fall of Rome, which I’m sure in some way can teach us about the inevitable fall of the United States.  I’m not sure how it is supposed to do this, but smart people have long told me that it is the case, so I suppose it’s true.

Friedman then moves on to his main argument; the American system is broken and it it going to cause a third party candidate to emerge.

But in talks here and elsewhere I continue to be astounded by the level of disgust with Washington, D.C., and our two-party system — so much so that I am ready to hazard a prediction: Barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her — one definitely big enough to impact the election’s outcome.

Ah yes a third party will save America, just like Unity 08 did!  I agree that it is bold to make a prediction that people make every cycle and almost never comes true.  It’s also bold to make one that seems to ignore some entry level political science about why such an scenario won’t happen.  But what is really annoying is the lack of an explanation over how a third party candidate could be effective at solving the problems that Friedman mentions.    But maybe I’m speaking to soon, lets see if he manages to make a convincing case that a third party is needed to help our deadlocked system.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t start out to well:

President Obama has not been a do-nothing failure. He has some real accomplishments. He passed a health care expansion, a financial regulation expansion, stabilized the economy, started a national education reform initiative and has conducted a smart and tough war on Al Qaeda.

Okay, starting out with a paragraph that basically disproves your entire argument that Washington isn’t working probably is not the best way to go, but I’ll keep reading.

There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center.

How did I know we were going to get here? I don’t know why Friedman wants us to feel bad for the poor ignored centrists who always lack a voice. But I’m even more curious as to why Friedman thinks the center can help us get out of this mess.  For example, he goes on to list the things he laments were not accomplished, mainly a powerful climate bill, improved infrastructure, tougher financial regulation and a better health care bill.  But does he really believe that a centrist third party would have made these things possible?  Out of every problem he cites, I can’t think of one that wasn’t slowed down and weakened by the centrists in Congress.  But no, I must be wrong,  a clean energy bill surly would have been possible if only we had more Ben Nelsons in the Senate!

Friedman continues:

We need a third party on the stage of the next presidential debate to look Americans in the eye and say: “These two parties are lying to you.

I’m wondering at this point if Friedman wrote this article in about five minutes without doing a spot check on his logic.  He talks about the need for a third party candidate to run for president, but every example he gives of special interests and good legislation getting stalled happens in….the Congress!  In fact he acknowledges that the presidency isn’t the problem earlier in his piece:

Obama probably did the best he could do, and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today — in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century — is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority.

So if we have a President with  the right ideas, but is unable to pass his agenda because of the way congress operates, the obvious solution is to change the presidency, got it?  I was happy to see Friedman  quote Larry Diamond in the piece, but adding a second mustache doesn’t save this astonishingly clueless column.

Plurality Vote

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