Schmitt on Reform Skeptics and Romantics

Mark Schmitt has written a thoughtful piece about democratic romanticism in the recent edition of the journal Democracy ( In it, he identifies “an increasingly influential group of scholars and journalists” who form a “school of skeptics” about the thrust and assumptions of contemporary political reform. He includes in this group Rick Pildes, Jonathon Rauch, Jason Grumlet, Ray LaRaja and me. He could have also mentioned Francis Fukuyama, Frances Lee, Nate Persily, Nelson Polsby and many others as well.


Indeed, there are a growing number of skeptics about the effectiveness and goals of contemporary US political reform. The reason is that some of these reforms have to a degree contributed to the current polarized politics situation. This is not to deny the importance of deeper contextual causes, but only to say that some political reforms have made a bad situation worse in unintended ways.


Since Schmitt’s piece is generally sympathetic to this skeptical critique, it may seem a bit petty to take issue with Mark, but I will incur that risk for the sake of greater clarity about a couple of key points. While I suspect that others in the skeptical cluster may agree with me, I can only speak with certainty about my own views.


First, Mark mistakes our realism about second best solutions for party nostalgia and romanticism. In some ideal reform world, perhaps, the Supreme Court would have taken a less strict view of the accepted justifications for campaign spending restrictions, but we have to take their decisions as a constraint for the foreseeable future. These decisions have proliferated independent spending and dark money by outside groups. Perhaps the best long-term strategy for those who do not like the status quo is to work for changes in the Supreme Court’s composition. But failing that, we should be open to a second best strategy that tries to redirect more of the money flow into the regulated and disclosed channels and away from independent spending. The Court has recently made that task somewhat easier by lifting the aggregate limits on contributions to parties and candidates, but there is more that could be done to allow larger donations to the party organizations and leaders that prioritize winning over purity. This may prove to be wrong advice, but it is not nostalgic or romantic. Nor is it the same reason the American Political Science Association endorsed responsible parties many decades ago.


Secondly, Mark is essentially skeptical that Republicans are rational actors, or that the electoral system will punish the Republicans for extreme behavior. I know a lot of Republicans, and while I do not always agree with them, only a minority are nuts. Most like being in office. Most like having power. Many are frustrated about the purists in their ranks. As a Democrat, Mark will remember that his own party has gone through phases of seeming irrationality. Let us not forget the endless Democratic Party reforms from 1968 though 1992 and the struggle to balance activist and professionals that culminated in creating super-delegates for the party conventions. American political parties go through phases when they sometimes get captured by purity politics, but they eventually get the pragmatic message.


Mark is also too quick to dismiss the median voter incentive. How does he explain the fact the establishment candidates have so far prevailed in winning the Republican Presidential nominations, or that Speaker Boehner relied on Democratic votes to pass the debt ceiling and DHS funding rather than give in to the Tea Party demands for obstruction. The Republican Party establishment recognizes the folly of purism, and could use some help from campaign finance reform. If there is a better way to put money in the hands of the pragmatists who prefer power to purity, I am “all ears.”


And let’s not forget that some of the purity problem that both parties have to counter is due to previous reform efforts to democratize the parties through primaries and caucuses. This has accentuated the voice of party activists, who tend to dominate the nomination processes when average voters stay home.


Finally, it is important not to focus on Congress alone. There are important problems at the Federal agency level, and in the states and local governments. A purely Washington focus discards lessons that have been learned in other parts of the country. The American reform challenge is complex and varied. In some cases, we need more democracy, and in others, less. Some parts of the system are harder to change than others. And some solutions to may lie outside institutional design. But that should not stop us from doing what we can to tinker with the system to mitigate the problems to the degree that we can.


Bruce Cain

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