16 March 2011

Should politicians be more sociable?

Writing in the current Newsweek, Michelle Cottle draws a correlation between gridlock in Washington D.C. and the capital city's "social retardation." Her article is another lament for those long-gone days when Republicans and Democrats got together for drinks after debating, though she doesn't go so far as to argue that drinks are necessary to loosen up partisanship. She insists, however, that "the fine art of legislating works best when those charged with negotiating the fine print enjoy solid relationships built on trust, respect and a general sense of comity." For the sake of argument, let's agree with her and concede that these relationships are harder to form across party lines today. Why is that? One reason Cottle stresses heavily is an increasingly "bifurcated existence" for congressmen. More of our representatives, especially in the freshmen "Tea Party" caucus, have left their families at home to live a spartan existence in Washington. As a result, they have less interest, Cottle assumes, in socializing in the manner popular back in the Sixties and Seventies. She quotes a congressman who warns that when "your emotional life is back in the district, [and] all you're doing is legislating,...it becomes all about the winning."

Whatever the consequences for sociability, this spartan impulse of the TPs may be one of the few admirable things about them. While some ideologues may overstress the dangers of a "political class," we can probably all agree that too much capital sociability could alienate a representative from the feelings and interests of his constituents. Luxury and other temptations of power should be avoided. Cottle herself notes that a generation of sex scandals has dampened old-school sociability independently of any ideological hardening in recent times. Those scandals have whipped many Americans "into a fury at the thought of politicians and aides swanning about schmantzy cocktail parties instead of tending to the people's business." Is that so bad?

Cottle complains that the President is part of the problem. Many observers initially expected him and the First Lady to restore Kennedyesque glamour to Washington. Instead, he has proven relatively aloof, which may prove either that he takes his job seriously or that he shares the allegedly prevailing disdain for bipartisan mingling. On this score, Cottle and the Democrats she interviewed compare Obama unfavorably to Bill Clinton, the arch-schmoozer. Sociability in Washington is apparently at an even lower ebb than during the Gingrich years, since Clinton could still get along with Trent Lott.

If there's a link between less sociability and less compromise, can more sociability solve it? I have my doubts. With each generation after 1964 the party bases have grown more ideological, and their representatives have grown necessarily more partisan. In the past, most politicians saw themselves primarily as representatives of their constituencies and their economic interests. Interests are more easily compromised and reconciled, and are more readily subject to a sociable sort of horse trading, than ideologies are. At the same time, governing according to "special" interests is in greater disrepute than ever, since that's the stuff of earmarks and the pork barrel. Meanwhile, a generation of talk radio and blogs has left chips on everyone's shoulders. There's a presumption of mutual hatred that might be overcome somewhat if legislators partied more, but overcoming such suspicions won't necessarily make ideological compromises any easier. Having everyone go to mixers is no substitute for reducing the role of ideology in practical politics. While breaking up the two-party system would most likely help that goal along, a more important and arguably more sociable step might be to restore some legitimacy to interest-based politics. The object shouldn't be to enable more pork-barrel spending, but to make compromise more likely on the individual level and to individualize legislators so that they're not automatically identified with the monolithic irreconcilable enemy. Our problem today is that the two parties can't seem to deal with each other. Individuals might have more luck, and might have a better time in the bargain.

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