Sunday, August 16, 2009


Krugman is very disappointed about the state of American democracy:

A couple of years ago there was a debate I was sorry I did not see, between Alice Rivlin and Paul Krugman. Alice Rivlin thought that organizations like the Brookings Institution at which she worked had a role: you could design and argue for good policies, convince senators and influential House members of their value for the public interest, and then build a bipartisan coalition from the center out--either to the left or to the right, depending on which ideological extreme's price for coming on board to support sensible policies that worked was least obnoxious.

Paul Krugman said no: that that strategy worked only as long as the ideological lines of party cleavage were blurred, which would be the case only as long as there were (a) a larger number of relatively liberal northerners who voted Republican because Lincoln freed the slaves, and (b) a large number of relatively conservative southerners who voted Democratic because Lincoln freed the slaves. Once the parties realigned, zero-sum partisan loyalties would dominate: Republicans like Hatch would think hard whether it was more important to vote for a bill because it was good for America or vote against it because then you could paint the Democratic president as a failure and pick up seats in the next election, and make their decision. You had, Paul said (I think: I wasn't there) to pick your party and then work hard to make its policies the best policies possible because "bipartisanship" was no longer a viable legislative strategy.

Well, this is basically how parliamentary systems work--the dominant party does whatever it wants, and the other parties remain in perpetual (loyal) opposition. Occasionally, if there are big divides in the leading party, the Prime Minister can reach out to willing opposition members (as Blair did over the Iraq War). But antagonism is the rule. These governments seem to work well enough.

We might as well admit that partisan fights are a reality, and bipartisanship, whatever its theoretical merits, is unlikely to endure in American politics. That's fine. But it would be useful to adopt some other tactics from parliamentary systems--like the Question and Answer time in the House of Commons--that force politicians to talk to each other, instead of relying on the media to intermediate.

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