Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The (Dis)Loyal Opposition

Today Ruth Marcus weighs in on a subject that I took up yesterday: the reliable inanity of House Minority Leader John Boehner. But while I was content merely to suggest in passing that he’s a blowhard, Marcus has bigger fish to fry. Here are her introductory paragraphs: 
"There are times when I flirt with the notion that the country would be better off with divided government.

“If Republicans took control, say, of the House, there would be pressure on both parties to behave more responsibly. The GOP would be pushed to stop carping and posturing, and start governing. Democrats would have political cover to make hard choices on entitlement spending, taxes and the like. As every politician knows, bipartisan cliff-jumping is a safer sport than going solo.”
But Marcus quickly concludes that, if divided government would put more power in the hands of people like John Boehner, it’s probably not such a great idea. She isn’t just saying that Boehner’s an airhead; she’s insinuating that he’s a bad citizen leading House Republicans in civically irresponsible opposition to the Obama presidency. 

Those who accept Marcus’s invitation to read on will soon discover that her distinction between civically irresponsible “carping and posturing” on the one hand, and responsibly taking a hand in “governing” on the other, is suspiciously co-extensive with the distinction between “opposing policies Marcus supports” and “supporting policies Marcus supports.” So it’s hardly surprising that she’s managed to persuade herself that the best way for Boehner to take his place at the head of a certifiably “loyal opposition” would be to give Obama and the Democratic Party the “political cover” to do what Marcus would have them do.

Yet before we dismiss Marcus’s column for the polemical boilerplate it is, it’s worth taking a moment to contemplate its profoundly undemocratic aspect. I’m ready—indeed happy—to stipulate that Republicans’ indiscriminate opposition to every element of the Obama agenda is unwise as a matter of public policy. But that doesn't change the fact that Republican intransigence has been politically rewarding. 

Boehner and the Republicans have been doing precisely what we expect politicians and political parties in opposition to do; viz., taking positions that enable them to assemble a majority of voters that prefer putting power in their hands to leaving it in the hands of the opposition party. Every informed analyst of the 2010 elections predicts that the Republican political strategy will work well, maybe even spectacularly. If that’s civically irresponsible conduct, then representative democracy is an orgy of civic irresponsibility. So what's so objectionable about Republicans acting as democrats?

As far I can see, Marcus’s best answer would have to go something like this: People’s voting preferences need not be an accurate expression of their real political interests because they can be mistaken about where their interests lie and which candidates or policies will best serve them. Such mistakes typically result from the voters’ ignorance, either in the form of deficient ethical self-consciousness or an incorrect understanding of how the social world works. So democratic politicians have a standing civic obligation not to nurture voter preferences that they know aren’t consistent with the voters' real interests. Boehner and Republicans are willfully breaching that obligation by opposing policies that they know will make their constituents better off by spreading disinformation and indulging in other underhanded techniques of political persuasion.  Popular opposition to Obama’s agenda is less politically authoritative than it would otherwise be because it's the product of Republican misconduct.

Leave aside the fact that the correlation between Marcus’s view of what counts as responsible partisanship and her own partisan leanings is still suspiciously strong. I’m more interested in the spectacular paternalism behind the idea that Boehner and the Republicans should be ashamed of their politicking.

Consider how we make life-and-death decisions about our own medical treatment. A doctor generally knows better than her patient what treatment is indicated for the patient’s condition. Yet we don’t suppose that the doctor’s expertise puts her in a position to decide whether it’s in the patient’s interest to undergo that treatment. Indeed, under normal conditions, were the doctor to initiate that treatment without the patient’s informed consent, or use her professional prestige to exert undue influence on the patient’s medical decisions, it would be a grave breach of medical ethics.

That’s because, generally speaking, we think of one’s interests as being largely a function of the realization of one’s values, whatever they may happen to be. Accordingly, the best evidence of what's in one’s interest is generally what one prefers under conditions that facilitate sound deliberation (when one is of sound mind, apprised of all the relevant information, insulated from psychological and social pressures that tend to cloud judgment, etc.). In the case of contemplated medical treatment, then, we think the best way to identify and promote the patient’s interests is not to concentrate decision-making power in the hands of the doctor, but to make the doctor’s expertise and conditions favorable to deliberation available to the patient.

Moreover, we generally believe that it’s unwise for a patient to defer to the opinion of any particular doctor. That’s why doctors routinely advise patients to seek a second opinion when their primary physician prescribes any radical medical procedure. We presume that, if there are conflicting expert opinions about what the indicated medical procedure is, the patient needs to know about it before deciding for himself what treatment to undergo.

We presume that doctors actually know important stuff.  The idea of presuming the same thing of politicians is merely funny.  Does it make sense to take a more paternalistic view of the relationship between politicians and voters than we take of the relationship between doctors and patients?


jfxgillis said...


"We presume that doctors actually know important stuff. The idea of presuming the same thing of politicians is merely funny."

Um. Why is it funny? I have no problem at all assuming that elected officials know more about public policy, PARTICULARLY concerning policy effects outside of narrow, parochial, sector or sectional interests--and that's even when they know those effects are going to screw someone over.

Anonymous said...

I do not agree with this post. It borders on nihilism to presume that being an elected representative is properly only about politically rewarding gamesmanship even if destructive of the national interest. When the Republicans consistently oppose policies (even ones the Republicans proposed) from the opposition just to prevent the President from claiming any success on any legislation, that seems a bit different than politics as usual. Going forward from now, under that reasoning, why shouldn't all political parties simply fight the opposing party's policies to the death in all circumstances?