Sunday, July 24, 2011

Two-step to the left

Matt Yglesias, on how to strengthen the American left:
If you want to move US public policy to the left, what you have to do is to identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them on Election Day with alternative candidates who are more left-wing. I think this works pretty reliable. To my mind, the evidence is pretty clear that even the election of fairly conservative pushes policy outcomes to the left as long as the guy they’re replacing was more conservative. And if your specific concern is that the Democratic Party isn’t as left-wing as you’d like it to be, then what you need to do is identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them in primaries with alternative candidates who are more left-wing. . . . This prescription is, I’m afraid, boring. And the solution proposed is, I’m afraid, hard work. But politics is hard work!
Matt's clearly right about this. Without progressive politicians in office, there's a hard upper bound on how progressive policy outcomes can possibly be. But Matt's prescription ignores the other important route to strengthening the institutional left: removing institutional barriers that prevent the left from making use of its electoral victories. Politicians are what we put into the system of government. The structure of institutions is how we determine what comes out of it. Ideologies get funneled through institutions, and in the process, transformed into bills and votes and eventually laws. Except often they don't make it all the way through. And there are lots of structural deficiencies in our system; dead ends which sap the energy and influence of even the most well-meaning, sympathetic progressive politicians.

You know what I'm going to say: the first step towards improvement would be eliminating the filibuster, which creates an exceptionally strong legislative bias towards the status quo, and has no real purpose as a parliamentary device. It's a straitjacket on progressive ambitions. But there are other, more subtle institutional changes that would also benefit progressives. Voter rules often disfavor progressive constituencies. Those can be changed. Easing the nomination process would make policy more responsive to election outcomes. And so on.

Improving policy is a two-step process. First, you have to empower people who agree with you. Second, you have to give those people the tools they need to actually change things. A lot of people would prefer to look for shortcuts, and downplay the first part. But almost everyone ignores the second. That's too bad, because improving our institutions is the easiest and most direct route to improving our politics.

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