Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ideology as Inhumanity

Ideology gets a bum rap inside the beltway. Mainstream pundits tend to portray ideologues as political hacks whose partisanship overwhelms their sense of civic responsibility. Although he doesn’t use the words “ideology” or “ideologue,” an aversion to ideology animates David Brooks’s bizarre column in today’s New York Times. Here he’s deploring the fact that the “interpersonal” psychology of the old clubby Senate is degenerating into the “clan” psychology of the House (my emphasis):

“In the United States, leaders in the House of Representatives have done an effective job in getting their members to think in group, not person-to-person, terms. Members usually vote as party blocs. Individuals have very little power. That’s why representatives are often subtle and smart as individuals, but crude and partisan as a collective. The social psychology of the House is a clan psychology, not an interpersonal psychology.

“The Senate, on the other hand, has historically been home to more person-to-person thinking. This is because the Senate is smaller and because of Senate rules. Until recently, the Senate leaders couldn’t just ram things through on party-line votes. Because a simple majority did not rule, and because one senator had the ability to bring the whole body to a halt, senators had an incentive, every day, to develop alliances and relationships with people in the other party.

“For decades, individual senators have resisted their leaders’ attempts to run the Senate like the House and destroy these relationships and these humane customs. A few years ago, when Republican leaders tried to pass judicial nominations on party-line votes, rank-and-file members like Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton spoke out forcefully against rule by simple majority.

“But power trumps principle. In nearly every arena of political life, group relationships have replaced person-to-person relationships. The tempo of the Senate is now set by partisan lunches every Tuesday, whereas the body almost never meets for conversation as a whole. The Senate is now in the process of using reconciliation — rule by simple majority — to try to pass health care. . . .

“Once partisan reconciliation is used for this bill, it will be used for everything, now and forever. The Senate will be the House. The remnants of person-to-person relationships, with their sympathy and sentiment, will be snuffed out. We will live amid the relationships of group versus group, party versus party, inhumanity versus inhumanity.”
What Brooks calls “clan psychology” in the House the rest of us call “party discipline.” There’s more of it than there used to be.  But that's not because Congressmen have become more inclined to stand in stubborn solidarity with ideological comrades, but because the parties are more ideologically homogeneous than they used to be. So ideological solidarity that used to undermine party discipline when there were conservative southern Democrats and liberal northeastern Republicans now reinforces it. Diligent representative politicians who want similar or complementary things for their constituents should, and usually do, stand together. Why  is it so alarming that they're now are more likely to belong to the same political party?  It sure makes it easier when you're deciding how to vote.

In any event, disparaging the ideological solidarity that now sustains party discipline as “clan psychology” is just strange. Clans are held together not by what their members commonly believe, but by who they are, people tied together by circumstances of birth. Ideologues couldn’t be less clannish; when they stand together it's because they subscribe to the same impersonal principles.

When Brooks celebrates the “interpersonal psychology” of the Senate, clannishness is exactly what he’s affirming. Clannishness among Senators distances them from their constituents so that they can be more scrupulous about observing senatorial privileges in their dealings with each other. That’s what made it possible for Harry Reid to buy Ben Nelson’s vote on the Senate healthcare bill by arbitrarily exempting Nebraskans from the costs of Medicaid expansion. I guess that’s the sort of thing that passes for a “subtle and smart” interaction in David Brooks’s world.

Give me ideological “inhumanity” any day.

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