Yesterday, Matt Yglesias made a fantastic point about what it means for policy to have a status quo bias:
This is something that I think a lot of intra-left discourse tends to miss about why policy reform is so difficult. Any time you want to disrupt a coalition of entrenched incumbent rent-seekers, be they in the oil industry or the health care industry or the financial services industry or what have you, you’re going up against a strong team. And it’s not strong simply because the CEOs have access (though they do) or because the firms can give money (though they can) it’s strong because big companies have employees. And those employees have spouses and kids and siblings and they pay taxes that support local government and shop at nearby stores. And this entire trail of dependents fears change, and deems itself entitled to whatever economic privileges the industry in question currently receives. [Emphasis mine]
Over at his blog, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein adds to this with a note on strategy:
But, yes, a big part of American-style democracy (and, at least in my view, any reasonable flavor of democracy) is going to involve what Robert Dahl called ‘a high probability that an active and legitimate group in the population can make itself heard effectively at some crucial stage in the process of decision’ (Preface to Democratic Theory, 145). In my view, those upset about what they consider the outsized voices of some groups are better off focusing on how to make sure that their own groups, and others they believe are being ignored, get their own chance to be “heard effectively” too.
This also makes for a nice addendum to my earlier post on Gary Johnson and the Republican presidential contest. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that politics in the United States is conducted primarily through interest groups of various stripes. Within both the Republican and Democratic parties, coalitions of interests groups—with shared and opposing priorities—work together or against each other to pursue particular outcomes for their respective “constituencies.” When large-scale change occurs, it’s because those interests have aligned together on something of a shared agenda, and have the electoral strength to show for it.
To borrow from Yglesias, I’m not sure that liberals treat this with the seriousness it deserves. Sometimes, it seems as if the left has two approaches to achieving policy reform: political pressure through grassroots action, and electing the right people at the right time. I don’t want to understate the extent to which those are really important, but I do want to float a possibility: insofar that the left has failed to achieve meaningful policy reform on more marginal issues—climate change and civil liberties, particularly—it’s because progressives have failed to appreciate the importance of interest group politics.
In other words, the problem isn’t so much that Democratic politicians aren’t committed to a particular vision of environmental regulation or civil liberties (though that’s probably true too), but that influential interests within the Democratic Party have yet to sign on to those aspects of the progressive agenda, at least, not in a way that translates into actual support. Put another way, Obama’s first-year focus on healthcare reform was almost predetermined by health care’s extremely high place on the Democratic Party’s list of priorities, and the fact that large swaths of the party had accepted it as an important goal. That climate change received short-thrift—despite Obama’s campaign pledge to the contrary—has a lot to do with its relative youth as an issue priority for Democrats, and the fact that it stands at odds with the other priorities of other groups of Democrats.
The downside of this is that the system has an incredibly strong status quo bias, for reasons discussed by Yglesias. The upside (and this is a big upside) is that the system is also very malleable, and with time and effort, progressives can grow their influence as an interest within the Democratic coalition. What’s more, for those of us worried about the influence of money on politics, it puts things in perspective: money is definitely important, but the sheer strength of money isn’t enough to determine the course of a political party. Again (and I find myself saying this a lot), it’s not the most satisfying conclusion, but it does provide avenues for further (and hopefully, constructive) action.