March 21, 2013
The Washington Monument
(Ron Edmonds/ Associated Press)

Unlike many supporters of Senate reform, I do not want to see simple majority-party rule in the Senate. I support, more broadly, Madisonian devices (bicameral Congress, separated institutions sharing powers, federalism, staggered elections and more) which make simple majority rule extremely difficult in the United States. The story of Iraq and health-care reform debated in the blogs today gives a good example of why.

Philip Klein argues that Iraq produced the Affordable-Care Act — thanks to Iraq, Democrats took over Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008 with even larger congressional majorities, and were therefore emboldened to pass the ACA. Ed Kilgore points out quite correctly that Democrats have always (well, since at least Harry Truman was president) wanted to pass universal health care; that the need for 60 in the Senate was a historically unusual consequence of a GOP obstruct-everything strategy; and that “Obamacare” is largely a Republican-designed solution, rather than a radical left-wing idea. What’s more, the Great Recession is a huge electoral factor as well. All true, but Klein’s core point is correct: No disaster in Iraq, and there’s a good chance that there’s no ACA.

What that says about democracy is important, because it reminds us that an enormously important shift in policy — health-care reform — happened for reasons having nothing at all to do with what any particular general election voter thought about the issue.

Moreover, it reminds us that even a simple model in which “retrospective voting” is the key — that is, people vote based on whether they approve or disapprove of how incumbents have done — is not going to furnish a big enough check on anything but the very biggest issues. Sure, enter a disastrous war or tank the economy and your party will suffer, so if you’re president you don’t want that to happen … but preside over a broken health-care system and your party will virtually never be punished for it. We like to pretend that issues matter in elections, but the truth is that outside of partisanship (and people are as likely to learn issues from partisanship as they are to choose party attachment from their issue preferences), only the very big things appear to matter.

The wrong lesson to take from this is that democracy is a hopeless sham. In fact, Madisonian democracy works despite the fact that elections do not necessarily respond to issue preferences. That’s because the rest of democracy — interest-group politics and especially party politics — gives plenty of opportunity for groups and even individuals to affect what happens. That’s a big deal! It’s the reality of self-government, and a far cry from either rule by a dictator’s whims or by an impenetrable bureaucracy.

But given that, it’s reasonable to structure institutions to limit the immediate ability of parties to get what they want when they win elections. In some ways, that’s especially true for an era in which parties have been able to enforce strict discipline (including eras such as this one in which polarization does the job for the parties).

The exact form of those institutions is open to debate…one can certainly agree with all of this and still believe that party majorities should usually prevail in the Senate, given all the other anti-majoritarian portions of the system. And it’s important to remember that a status quo bias can be hostile to democracy, too. Still, at the very least the story of Iraq and the ACA is an excellent reminder of the complexity of elections, democracy and public policy.