In Defense of Kludgeocracy

My column today over at TAP is an argument with Steven Teles, who has been writing important things about the US policy-making process as a “Kludgeocracy.” Generally, I think his diagnosis is correct, including the causes of kludges, but I think it’s mostly a good thing, not a bad one. I’m somewhat skeptical about how much of a net bad thing it is in terms of policy efficiency, but I’m confident that it’s a good thing in terms of democracy.

I want to highlight my argument about democratic accountability, which Teles argues would be enhanced if “constitutional norms forced government to act directly and transparently or forgo action altogether” because it would be easier to see what government does and therefore easier for voters to reward or punish. Here’s my response:

I think this is largely a myth. Modern government, even the streamlined version Teles wants, is still going to do far too many things for this kind of accountability to work. Voters, after all, have only one ballot. They can’t possibly use it to hold politicians accountable for multiple successes and failures, even in the unlikely event that they are attentive enough to properly assess those policies…

On the other hand, kludgeocracy increases accountability—dramatically. Individual politicians have a real opportunity to make significant policy changes on many occasions. The very fact that there’s no one who is “in charge” is exactly what can make it hard for politicians to entirely duck a constituent’s demands. And we have plenty of evidence that politicians do respond to constitution demands, even if failure to do so probably wouldn’t show up as a significant electoral effect.

I really want to emphasize the point that to the extent that democratic accountability is about the voters, it’s just an incredibly blunt instrument. Voters, and especially swing voters, simply are not going to flip their votes in most cases over policy choices. Instead, this sort of accountability functions mainly as an imperative to incumbent politicians: avoid doing things that anger voters! That’s especially the case with policy outcomes; presidents know, for example, that they really don’t want to be up for re-election while the nation is losing a war or suffering through a recession.

(Yes, there’s a problem that a lot of liberals worried about in 2012 of incentives for the out-party to deliberately attempt to produce negative policy outcomes, along with sufficient institutional means for the “out”-party to affect policy which the “in” party would then take responsibility for. I tend to think it’s a real, albeit overrated problem…but it’s not really the problem that Teles is concerned with).

The “no policy disasters!” impulse is a good and healthy one in a democracy. It’s crucial. But it’s also very, very, limited.

What I think does a lot more of the work of real democracy falls, in my way of thinking of things, under the broad category of representation, which I think is far more more nuanced than electoral accountability. Representation isn’t just about policy congruence between representative and constituents. It’s also about what those representatives actually spend their time working on — what they actively attempt to accomplish, as opposed to just how they vote on the House or Senate floor (for more on representation, see here andhere). But for that to be meaningful, there has to be more that legislators can do than merely voting. Thus the current US system; thus kludges.

In other words, I believe that what the US system discovered is the incredible capacity of representation; and what that system, with its multiple veto point and initiative points, can do really well is to take advantage of that capacity.

And that’s why I care about this argument. To me, the successes of democracy are in large part about groups or even individuals pushing politicians, and politicians responding by making promises and then attempting to carry out those promises. But while everything can’t be about individual politicians (and this is on of the reasons that parties are important, and that it’s important for parties to be permeable so that newly interested citizens can at least potentially affect party positions on questions of public policy), it’s important that those individual politicians do have the tools available to tap into the full capacity of representation.

As I argued in the piece, I’m not even convinced that the resulting messy policy is a net negative. But even if it is, I’m generally willing to accept that price for meaningful democracy.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.