Beyond Ideology

The big political book of the season is Game Change, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. It’s a rollicking tour of the people who make up our political culture, and that’s a fun read because, well, people are fun to read about. They’re unpredictable and imperfect and endearing and enraging. There’s a reason we read romance novels rather than academic studies tabulating the reactions respondents have to romantic stimuli.

But if we’re looking to understand why what those people do and say matter, maybe we’d be better off with the studies. Frances Lee’s book ‘Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate’ doesn’t read very well. It has too many sentences like “the positive coefficient on the lag of mean party difference” for my taste, and believe me, I have a taste for such things. But it is the single best book I’ve read for understanding what is going on in Washington today.

Its thesis is that there’s fairly little honest disagreement in the Senate (and, by implication, in Congress). We’ve erred in assuming that legislators act the way they do because of ideology. But beneath that thesis is a more radical, and more directly useful, argument: We’ve erred in understanding legislators as individuals in the first place.  

The error is understandable. Virtually no one campaigns as a safe vote for Harry Reid’s continued reign as Senate majority leader. Instead, we hear a lot about how such-and-such or so-and-so means to bring a businessman’s perspective to Washington, or offer a working mother’s take on matters, or will be an independent voice in the nation’s capital. We learn about their families, their background, their hobbies. Watch enough campaign commercials and you’ll be able to pick your senator’s dog out of a line-up.

Then they get to Washington and act, well, like everyone else. When the chips are down, moderate Republicans vote pretty much exactly like conservative Republicans, and the same goes across the aisle. The Senate health-care bill, for all the sturm und drang, secured 60 Democratic votes and zero Republican votes. That’s not to obscure the differences between Ben Nelson and Bernie Sanders, but at the end of the day, the two of them voted alike, even though Ben Nelson’s beliefs are probably a lot closer to Maine’s moderate Republicans than Vermont’s self-described socialist.

“Parties,” Lee writes, “are institutions with members who have common political interests in winning elections and wielding power, not just coalitions of individuals with similar ideological preferences.” This is a comment so obvious as to obscure its radicalism. The two parties have an incentive to make each other look bad. How else will they win the next election? But that means their interests are directly opposed to cooperation.

After all, if 20 Republicans thought the health-care bill was a pretty decent compromise and said so, they would’ve handed Democrats the single largest legislative victory since the Great Society. The American people reward success, and to reward the Democrats would mean that the Republicans would find their jobs suddenly endangered. Almost as bad, it would ensure the Republicans didn’t get the promotion to majority-status, which would mean they can’t move forward on their agenda. Put it this way: If the guy in the next cubicle will be denied a promotion – and might even lose his job — if the boss likes your report, you’re not going to look to him to pipe up with praise at the next all-staff meeting.

In the past, this was widely understood. As Lee documents, the use of “ideology” to explain why senators do what they do is a relatively recent development. In a search of journal and news articles across the 20th century, the word “ideology” doesn’t show its face as an explanation for legislative behavior until 1940. Instead, analysts relied on the term “party principles,” which bundled philosophical commitments and electoral interests.

“Ideology” emerged in the long postwar period of Democratic dominance, when the most salient combat was between different types of congressional Democrats — namely, liberals and southern racists. Crucially, that was an intraparty dispute, not a dispute between the two parties. “The concept of ideology explained what party could not,” Lee writes, but then it stuck around, even after the southern racists were run out of the Democratic Party and the relevant disputes were now between the two parties.

Today, ideology is the favored explanation for why legislators vote the way they do. But as Lee shows, it doesn’t fit the evidence. Her book builds out a data set of, among other things, non-ideological votes, procedural votes, and votes on “good government” issues. None of these matters are particularly ideological in nature: There’s no conservative or liberal position on whether NASA should pursue a manned mission to Mars, or whether the Senate should invoke unanimous consent to dispense with the reading of a bill, or whether government should be corrupt. But as Lee finds, votes on these issues remain tremendously partisan.

There are a host of reasons for this. The common explanation is that the parties realigned along ideological boundaries. The conservative Dixiecrats were defeated and those seats went to the Republicans. The Northeastern Republicans were turned out of office and Democrats picked up those states. As the parties ceased to disagree on so much, the commonality of their interests began to dominate their behavior.

Another explanation Lee advances is that the president plays a polarizing role in the system. Her data shows two interesting things, neither of which I’d seen quantified until this book: First, Congress is spending more and more time on the president’s agenda. Amazingly, that’s true no matter who controls Congress. It’s true even in times of divided government. In those cases, Congress spends a lot of time rejecting the president’s agenda. Second, an issue becomes more polarized – that is, more likely to see a party-line vote – if the president takes a position on it.

This is, on some level, intuitive. The president is the leader of his party. Elections – even midterm elections – tend to be a referendum on the president’s performance. And as Lee writes, “if a party wants to undermine the case for a president’s reelection or his party’s continuance in government, its members must find grounds on which to oppose the president’s initiatives.”

All this would be interesting but irrelevant if not for the rules of the Senate, which give the minority party the power to stop legislation with 41 votes. It’s a rare day indeed when the minority doesn’t have 41 votes, and so the trends described in Lee’s book – increasing party discipline and a recognition that it’s in the minority party’s best interest to oppose the majority party’s initiatives – mean that the minority party has both good reason and plenty of power to keep the majority party from governing. And that’s pretty much been the central reality of Washington in recent years.

In theory, this needn’t be that hard to fix. Majority rule is a long-honored tradition, in our country and others, and we could restore it with fair ease. But we don’t understand the problem very well. Most people look at Congress and assume the disagreements are honest, which suggests the legislation causing the argument is probably pretty extreme, which raises the question of why the majority party is proposing it, and so on. It’s a recipe for cynicism about Washington, not reform of Washington. And it’s fueled by our insistence on pretending that the people we elect are individuals, rather than members of a team. Lee’s book may not be the easiest read, or the most entertaining, but it gets the problem right.