Naiveté and Modesty in Political Reform Thinking

March 12, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Mark Schmitt has written an interesting piece, and Bruce Cain has briefly responded, on the surging skepticism among a distinguished group of scholars about the last decades of political reform.  Schmitt respects the skeptics’ work.  But he worries that they may also have succumbed to a dangerous naiveté.  He means that they may overstate the negative effects of recent reform efforts, as in diminishing the role of parties, and may make too much of what can be accomplished by countermeasures to strengthen the capacity for effective governance.  It is fine to say, as these skeptics do, that we should value more a messy and transactional politics by which consensus is forged and accomplishments are possible, but Schmitt insists that we proceed with care, lest we romanticize the time of shady backroom dealing rigged against anyone lacking money and privilege.

This warning seems premature: there is little cause to worry that these skeptics have gone too far, or that their prescriptions would usher in a new Gilded Age of opaque politics full of the risk of corruption and plutocratic control.  They still have a fair amount of work to do in pulling the conversation toward a reasonable “middle,” away from the exaggerations and distortions of the political reform debate over many years.  One challenge has been overcoming the pressures on reform thought from the reform movement.

That movement has been a close collaboration of activists, journalists and academics who have rallied around a specific program and have seemed to believe that its successful enactment depends on a certain hot rhetorical style and uncompromising mode of argument.  These advocates are not being altogether cynical or calculating: a certain moral fervor comes with this territory, as John T. Noonan reminded readers in his masterwork on bribery.  They also deserve credit for good work done and reasonable proposals made.  But there has also been much Chicken Little prophesying about democratic decline and discrediting of opponents’ motives, and often a fear that any concession to the “other side” will lead inexorably to the white flag of total surrender.

This can be said without dismissing the point that nothing good will come of having distortions and exaggerations develop in the other direction.   The choice in reform is not between living with corruption or with loss of liberty, or between oligarchy and oppressive state controls.  The next generation of debate about the structure of political law—a debate the skeptics are inviting– is best served by care in analysis and modesty in setting goals.

Consider, for example, the national parties about which much is being written: improving their access to resources and their position relative to “outside groups” does not have to rest on rosy beliefs about what will happen next. The parties will do better with more funds, and it will help the party leadership to have them. It is a good thing to do, for both party politics and its effect on governance, but there is no case for saying that this will be a dramatic move, nor for saying that if it is not dramatic, it is not worthwhile.  By the same token, it is also not correct that supplying this support invites massive “corruption”.

The same point holds for state parties.   McCain Feingold did not, as some argue, destroy them—many were struggling well before, for various reasons—but it also made their situation worse.  Making things worse is never desirable, and so bad enough: no stronger claim need be made. Measures could be taken to lighten the compliance burden of state parties and liberalize financing rules for their benefit, and the results could be salutary but neither miraculous nor risky.

Maintaining this perspective in thinking about transparency rules would also be helpful. Not all disclosure requirements threaten privacy or scuttle the prospects for productive, closed-door negotiation; and not all of them are successfully designed to minimize those risks.  Some of them are just silly, serving little useful purpose and largely just complicating the work of the officials who must comply with them.

For many years, from the Watergate era through the turn of the century, the public argument has been too one-sided:  movement politics has had too strong a hold on reform debate.  The skeptics are calling attention to the costs and to alternative ways of thinking about the subject.  This does not mean an end to reform and a turn back to bygone eras of smoke-filled rooms and barrels of cash.  It could mean a more sensible discussion after which constructive changes are made, neither oversold nor undervalued.

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