Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why the healthcare debate suggests that an effective third party would result in an impotent government

As is my wont, I’ve been following the current Senate maneuverings on healthcare, but for different reasons than partisans on either side of this particular policy debate. The difficulties that the Democrats have experienced in expanding a majority vote into a filibuster-proof supermajority present an object lesson for why a two-party system, imperfect as it may be, is likely the best method to ensure that the machinery of government will work at all. It follows that, in the absence of changes in the nature of our political discourse or government institutions (and possibly both), a robust third party would be a civic disaster.

At present, a handful of disaffected Democrats and independents have been able to force extensive changes in a bill that a majority of the legislature supported. For opponents of health care, this state of affairs is a godsend. For proponents of an effective law-making process, it is profoundly disheartening. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of healthcare itself, a minority’s ability to block the will of the majority is fundamentally at odds with how we expect a legislative body to function. Forget the fact that one might oppose healthcare reform as a matter of principle. If one swaps “healthcare reform” with “Bill X,” and Bill X is what one personally believes to be a good policy, then it is difficult to reconcile the majority-rule norms of a democratic republic with what has been going on in the Senate as of late.[1]

The striking thing is that the holdouts on healthcare reform are not members of the formal opposition. They are senators who caucus with the Democratic party. All else being equal, if one swapped Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson with a 20-strong minority third party, securing their votes would likely be impossible (as has been the case with Republicans). And in the current environment, it is unlikely that a third party would be full of pure-hearted, principled, enlightened, commonsensical servants of the people. Instead, it would likely be the same mix of serious policymakers, self-interest crooks, and fame-seeking clowns that are pretty much the norm in any large organization, let alone a national political party. While this might act as a check on the influence of special interests in the legislative process (which is a dubious proposition at best), having more than two political parties would likely prevent many good policies from being enacted in an effort to block a few bad ones.

Some might say that is a good thing, i.e., “That government is best which governs least,” and all that pedantic nonsense. However, people who will embrace that pithy platitude as an actual principle are few and far between.[2] Instead, fine ideas about limited government are conveniently forgotten or glossed over depending on whose ox is being gored. There are big government advocates on either side of the political spectrum, with the most common examples being the left’s advocacy for strong social safety nets and the right’s preference for a robust military. So, regardless of one’s particular belief about what specifically falls within the legitimate exercise of government power, – be it universal health care, the projection of military power, gay rights, gun control, the interdiction of illegal drugs, counterterrorism – once one concedes that the government has some necessary function, then a permanently paralyzed national legislature quickly loses its academic charm.

I recognize there are those who advocate radical reforms, such as commentators who view the Senate as an anti-democratic institution and propose its abolition. Such reforms may very well be necessary. However, a third party alone is no cure to what ails us. A third party wouldn’t make our existing law-making process any more effective, and the development of a third party in the absence of any broader structural reform is likely to make the problem worse.

[1] For those who will reflexively argue that the United States is not a direct democracy, bear in mind that I am discussing how our legislature works, not the country as a whole. And from a constitutional perspective, the dominance of the majority is the rule rather than the exception.

[2] Granted, some libertarians (little L) claim that this is exactly what they are striving for. To the extent that such true-believers exist, wishing to see a viable third party slow down the workings of government, such an act would undermine democratic values. A third-party that exists merely to paralyze the government may be the “best” from an ideological standpoint, but for a minority third party to do so is fundamentally anti-majoritarian and at odds with our underlying democratic principles.

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