Constituencies and interest groups might matter a little less than we think
Will is right to say that I didn’t fully address one of Douthat’s core points, which he summarizes (quite well, I should add) in the post below:
The point of redistributive taxation isn’t to soak the rich – raising taxes, after all, imposes economic penalties. The larger goal is to improve the lot of poor and middle class citizens through redistributive programs. If the effectiveness of those programs is compromised by the Democratic Party’s core constituencies – teacher unions, the pro-immigration lobby – then perhaps it’s time to reconsider the scope of the Left’s political ambitions.
I agree that the point of redistributive taxation is to improve the lot of poor and middle class citizens and not, as I sometimes suggest, to soak the rich (though to be honest, I would really enjoy to see the rich soaked, if only to satisfy my class resentment*). Insofar that I disagree with Will’s post – and Douthat’s column more generally – it’s in the idea that “the effectiveness of those problems is compromised by the Democratic Party’s core constituencies.” That is, I’m not convinced that core constituencies qua core constituencies have that much influence over the policy-making process.
Or in other words, insofar that constituent groups or interest groups can compromise the passage of legislation – and particularly very big legislation – it’s because they can take advantage of the various veto points in the legislative process. The stimulus, to use one of Will’s examples, was so incredibly pork laden in part because – in the absence of overwhelming legislative support – the only way to get the bill through was to fatten it up with goodies and sweeteners. The same will be true of the final health care bill: it’s not so much that any one group can exert so much influence that they override the preferences of the legislators and water down the bill considerably, as it is that legislators have to essentially buy votes by paying off whichever parochial interests happens to want something because there isn’t enough consensus to override said interests (Kevin Drum made this point really well not too long ago).
As it stands, our institutions give interest groups the room to have a ton of influence, and give legislators plenty of incentive to give into that influence. So, to get back to Will’s post, the Left (and the Right for that matter) does need to reconsider the scope of its political ambitions. I happen to think that both sides need to widen that scope, and aim not just for passing good policy, but for reforming the institutions of governance**.
*Most of which is a product of my time at UVA.
**It’s worth adding that I might be completely wrong about this entire post.