This week’s series considers Tom Allen’s new book Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress. Today we begin with common explanations for the breakdown in Congress, and why Allen believes the true answer lies in the parties’ very different worldviews. Tomorrow we’ll see specific examples in budget policy, the Iraq War, health care, and climate change. Saturday we’ll conclude with what Allen proposes to enable Congress to function again.
Note: Tom Allen represented Maine’s 1st District in the U.S. House for twelve years. He graduated from Bowdoin College, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford with former President Bill Clinton, and graduated from Harvard Law School. He served on the staffs of Maine Governor Kenneth Curtis and Sen. Edmund Muskie and, after practicing law, was elected to the City Council of Portland, Maine. In 1996 he was elected to Congress, where he served on the House Energy and Commerce and House Budget Committees, chaired the House Affordable Medicines Task Force, and served on the House Oceans Caucus. After his unsuccessful 2008 challenge against incumbent Sen. Susan Collins, Allen was appointed president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers.
Most Americans know our Congress is dysfunctional. A humorous but revealing Public Policy Polling survey last month found Congress was less popular than head lice, brussel sprouts, NFL replacement referees, colonoscopies, root canals, and used car salesmen. And it’s no secret why. Last December Gallup found only 18% approval for Congress, and 70% of Americans asking for compromise on the fiscal cliff budget issues vs. only 18% wanting members to stick to their principles.
Although members of Congress announce almost daily their reasons for supporting this policy or opposing that one, the media typically treat those statements as mere theater: lines delivered to appease donors or the party base, or to appeal to an interest group or demographic. When attempts at compromise fail and bills pass or fall on party-line votes, the media often invoke bygone days when members and their families lived in or near D.C., forming social bonds over dinners and their children’s school activities. Allen concedes that each of these is partly true. Yet he argues that none of these alone, nor all taken together, fully explains our broken Congress.
The root of the problem, Allen argues, lies in what the media routinely ignore: those statements made by members of Congress as they declare why they will support this policy or oppose that one.
Allen knew his public statements were straightforward expressions of his reasons. He believed most of his Democratic colleagues also said what they truly believed when they spoke about public issues. But what of Republicans? Time and again he asked his fellow Democrats: “Do they really believe what they say?”
The answer, Allen came to recognize, was “Yes, Republicans really do believe what they say” … even when what they say is demonstrably, empirically false.
Blind to facts …
Consider the official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, where Sen. Marco Rubio said:
My parents immigrated here in pursuit of the opportunity to improve their life and to give their children the chance at an even better one. They made it to the middle class, my dad working as a bartender and my mother as a cashier and a maid. I didn’t inherit any money from them. But I inherited something far better: the real opportunity to accomplish my dreams.
This opportunity – to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life – it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business, and when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs.
In that same speech, Sen. Rubio said that his mother and many of his neighbors rely on Social Security and Medicare for a secure retirement. In that same speech, Sen. Rubio said that he could not have attended college without federal financial aid. Yet in that same speech, Sen. Rubio declared:
More government isn’t going to help you get ahead; it’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities; it’s going to limit them. And more government isn’t going to inspire new ideas, new businesses, and new private-sector jobs; it’s going to create uncertainty.
How could Sen. Rubio ignore facts from his own life experience in making that claim?
… Blinded by principles
The answer, Allen argues, is that Republicans argue not from facts but from principles. Consider this statement by the pseudonymous Monty Pelerin, a disciple of Austrian School economist Friedrich Hayek:
Freedom, on the other hand, is a zero-sum game. The amount of freedom is fixed. You cannot create more of it. If government grows bigger or more powerful, it means that the private sector loses freedom. Government growth does not add to the amount of freedom, it takes away personal freedom. The more power government has, the less available to citizens. Freedom does not expand or contract, it shifts. Powerful government means non-powerful citizens or less-free citizens.
If that sounds remarkably similar to Sen. Rubio’s speech, it’s because Austrian School economic theories have come to dominate the Republican Party worldview. In the Republican worldview, “freedom” means only negative liberty: the absence of interference from others. That worldview dismisses positive liberty: the presence of opportunities and resources to fulfill one’s own potential.
In this radically individualistic worldview, the fact that federal financial aid helped Sen. Rubio attend college, and the fact that Sen. Rubio’s mother and many of his neighbors have secure retirements through Social Security and Medicare, like the fact sensible gun safety laws allow more people to survive and pursue their dreams are irrelevant. All of those are examples of positive liberty, which can be strengthened by what President Obama calls “smarter government.”
But if you ignore positive liberty, as the Republican worldview does, there is no “smarter government.” There is only what Sen. Rubio calls “more government.” And in that worldview, “more government” means “less freedom” … as a matter of principle.
Another party, another worldview
Allen argues that Republicans argue from principles, and when facts contradict their principles the facts must be wrong. What’s more, Allen writes, Republicans reject the possibility that Democrats might argue from facts. Instead, Republicans presume that Democrats argue from opposing principles, hence their claims President Obama and Democrats are “socialists” whose response to any problem is “more government” and “less freedom.”
In fact, Allen argues, Democrats do not always argue for “more government.” We do argue for “more freedom,” both in terms of negative liberties (e.g.: women’s health care choice) and positive liberties (e.g.: more opportunity for more Americans). We recognize and affirm individual effort, but we also recognize that cognitive biases often lead individuals to choices that do not pursue their self-interests, that what we commonly discuss as individual achievement often reflects community action, and that many problems require community action to reduce self-interested waste.
None of those is always true, for every person, in every situation. We Democrats accept that, and greater tolerance for ambiguity is one reason we’re progressives. Rather than forcing problems and solutions to fit unchanging principles … we try to gather data and evidence and fit solutions to problems as best we can.
In other words, Allen argues, the difference between the the parties’ worldviews is not dogma vs. dogma – as Republicans assume – but dogmatism vs. empiricism. And as we’ll see tomorrow, that difference-in-kind makes political compromise even more difficult.