Some of what’s wrong in The Atlantic’s cover story

I was going to title this Everything that’s wrong in the Atlantic’s cover story. But I have limited time and patience, so I’ll start with something smaller scale, which is to say this – I think the article uses flawed logics and a poor metaphor to reach an incorrect conclusion.

Bad metaphors

Rauch argues that:

Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.

I think if you start off with the metaphor that a particular party system is an immune system, and reforms to improve it are attacks, then you are likely to conclude that reform was bad. For what it’s worth, I think there are plenty of meaningful, structural factors that we can identify that have brought us to the current situation. I don’t think efforts to reform the political system are central, or even necessarily causal, to the current situation (whatever you think of it).

Flawed logic

Where to start on this, really? Maybe here:

When a party raised a soft-money donation from a millionaire and used it to support a candidate’s campaign (a common practice until the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banned it in federal elections), the exchange of favors tied a knot of mutual accountability that linked candidate, party, and donor together and forced each to think about the interests of the others. Such transactions may not have comported with the Platonic ideal of democracy, but in the real world they did much to stabilize the system and discourage selfish behavior.

I think an argument that says that un-transparent donations from a millionaire to an elected representative discourage selfishness and are in the interests of the people represented by the elected member is displaying extremely poor logic.

Rauch talks about changes to the Congressional committee system as though reforms to remove the focus on seniority, and cuts to Congressional staffing, are one and the same thing, or are movements in the same direction. It’s not clear to me that they are – they likely sprung from different views, and could very conceivably have had very different impacts.

For what it’s worth, the idea he puts forward (farther down in the piece) that somehow the failure to pass an appropriations bill is linked to the lack of pork-barrelling is laughable. There’s something much more fundamental at stake.

Poor assumptions

Underlying much of Rauch’s ideas seems to be a sense of fatalism about the possibility of electoral reform:

Starting in the 1970s, large-dollar donations to candidates and parties were subject to a tightening web of regulations. The idea was to reduce corruption (or its appearance) and curtail the power of special interests—certainly laudable goals. Campaign-finance rules did stop some egregious transactions, but at a cost: Instead of eliminating money from politics (which is impossible), the rules diverted much of it to private channels.

There’s a quote from GB Shaw that comes to mind on this front: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

A defensible position? 

Farther down in the piece, Rauch tries to walk back some of his critiques:

Party-dominated nominating processes, soft money, congressional seniority, closed-door negotiations, pork-barrel spending—put each practice under a microscope in isolation, and it seems an unsavory way of doing political business. But sweep them all away, and one finds that business is not getting done at all. The political reforms of the past 40 or so years have pushed toward disintermediation—by favoring amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders; by privileging populism and self-expression over mediation and mutual restraint; by stripping middlemen of tools they need to organize the political system. All of the reforms promote an individualistic, atomized model of politics in which there are candidates and there are voters, but there is nothing in between. Other, larger trends, to be sure, have also contributed to political disorganization, but the war on middlemen has amplified and accelerated them.

That paragraph was as close as Rauch seems to come to a reasonable conclusion. It just seems incredibly short-sighted to me to focus on something that I think is an outcome (a collapse in political structures) rather than a driver (major economic, social and demographic shifts).

Rauch has done that most disappointing thing, which is to pick an incredibly interesting topic (the current state of American politics), and write something profoundly lacking in insight.


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