Progressives’ Stake in Strengthening Democracy

In my last post on one of TAP’s November/December issue essays on a forty-year plan for progressives, I noted that Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson posed a choice between counter-polarization and institutional reforms for making governing easier and more accountable. In another of the series, congressional scholar Thomas Mann chooses the latter:

Tit for tat can be an appropriate short-term strategy for inducing cooperation from a defecting participant in a negotiating situation. Confrontation and punishment are often necessary to rein in a party or set of actors bent on advancing interests and imposing policies antithetical to the animating values of our constitutional system. Political parties are essential instruments of a well-functioning democracy. Nonpartisanship, imagined bipartisanship, and the search for a golden mean between polar opposites often produce neither more–constructive politics nor good policy.

But a strategy consumed with arming the left with sharper ideological spears and enhanced infrastructure with which to compete more effectively in the political marketplace could easily fall prey to the same pathologies as the conservatives. Better, in my view, is an approach that focuses on strengthening our democracy and building coalitions to create and sustain problem-solving public policies.

Mann argues for measures that won’t be easy to secure: radically increased voter turnout in both primaries and general elections (up to and including emulation of the Australian system of mandatory voting); a constitutional amendment to reform campaign financing; and most of all the development of a “public philosophy” that includes “a full-throated advocacy of an adequately resourced and competent government.” More immediately, he calls for an assault on the “holds” and filibusters in the Senate to restore the principle that majorities rule in Congress “except for clearly specified exceptions.” It’s an ambitious but in many ways highly traditionalist agenda, reflecting the dangers of conservative radicalism we’re experiencing so abundantly at present.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.