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constantly confronted

I keep meaning to mention that Jonathan Bernstein has a blog. Some of y’all may know him—he’s David S. Bernstein’s brother, for one thing—and he’s a social acquaintance of mine from way, way back. He is a political scientist, and his blog is about politics, mostly current politics, although he does have both a background in theory and experience working on Capitol Hill, which occasionally provoke a really informative post. He also has (probably not by coincidence) an attitude toward representative democracy that is very near to YHB’s own.

Here, for instance, is something I completely endorse: To be active—to really engage—in democratic politics means constantly being confronted with just how different everyone is, and how much that feels right and important and necessary to you is going to be threatened.

Now, as y’all know, I think the fact that people are different, one to another, is what makes the world interesting and fun. But I do understand that it also makes the world complicated and confusing. I think Jon is right that what makes real engagement in politics so frustrating in a democracy is that you cannot escape that difference for a day or an hour.

On occasion, and even sometimes in this Tohu Bohu, I say to people that if I could appoint a President, anyone that I thought would be the best at the job, I wouldn’t do it. I would rather have a crappy President elected than a great one appointed. The point being that democracy is more important to me than good governance, and in a democracy, one person’s good governance is another person’s waste, fraud and abuse. And just because I’m right, doesn’t mean my rightness has any more weight than another person’s wrongness.

This means that the health care finance reform bill that now seems very likely to pass is not going to be my bill. I suppose that is easy for me; my bill was so far off the table that our Socialist Senator didn’t even introduce it. I think it’s a lot more frustrating for people who thought for some reason that the House Bill (leaving aside Sen. Stupak’s Amendment) was their bill. Or for people who have not (yet?) adjusted to that confrontation with political difference, and learned to celebrate it. Or for people who prefer good government to democracy.

Which I understand. I mean, it matters that this bill will not achieve Health Care for All. It matters that the redistribution of wealth that surrounds health care is in a direction that is bad for people. It matters that we have not really tackled the problems of private insurance as they affect people’s health. It matters that the resources within health care are so badly distributed. It really does matter. And when I am faced with somebody who tries to avoid paying out-of-pocket on a cold and then goes to an overburdened ER which is not able to treat their pneumonia—and maybe gets another infection on top of that—it isn’t all that much relief to mention that she lives in a democracy, where votes count equally, whether they know anything about health care or not. Or that the Senate is designed to slow down the pace of change, a feature that made me extra-happy in 1995 and 1996. Or that I really do think, in the long, long run, that the battle is for the broad sympathies of the culture, and that we are winning it, slowly, slowly. Slowly.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Fair enough, but if you want to get right down to it, in the world of the Senate everyone's vote does not count equally.

An individual Californian has roughly 2% of the clout in the Senate possessed by the individual North Dakotan or Vermonter (not to mention the poor citizens of our nation's capital who have no representation in the Senate at all).

The vote of a senator in the majority is worth roughly 2/3 of the vote of a senator in the minority, under current Senate rules.

There are good reasons for the Senate to slow down the pace of change, but electing Senators to six-year terms and having them represent larger groups of American citizens than does the House would accomplish that. The additional imbalances in representation, which diminish the political power of people in populous states, and the current filibuster rules, simply make it easier for the wealthy to control the Senate agenda to protect their (in)vestments. That's not just about the pace of change, but about the direction of change.

The Senate is a much more democratic body than, say, the House of Lords, but it has very significant anti-democratic features. These, more than the inherent messiness of coalition politics, are responsible for the harrowing quality of coalition building there, and the disappointing results.

Thus, I think it is true that the outcome of the Senate's legislation on healthcare reform can be just as frustrating for people who value democracy highly.

The Senate has significant anti-majoritarian features, which of course are to some extent anti-democratic by their nature. And I agree that the extreme difference in state-to-state population makes the Senate questionable. Absolutely. But on the other hand, in the specific matter of the Health Care Finance Reform, we wound up with 60 votes for a bill that is quite unpopular. It's not clear to me from the polls (and I haven't been examining them with particular care) whether the House bill would be more popular or less, but certainly each of those 60 votes had to contend with the simple fact that the bill was not a popular bill at the moment of the vote. So there's that anti-democratic bit as well.

And I'm not sure that the specific anti-majoritarian features of the Senate are to blame for the funkiness of the Bill, either. Were the Senators from Vermont more trouble than those from Connecticut or Louisiana? Did the over-representation of Maine make any difference to the result? When Sen. Nelson pushed for anti-choice language in the bill, was he representing a small state or a large (if wrong) faction?

The problem, really, is not that there were not 60 votes for a better bill, or even that there are not 50 votes for a good bill (and there aren't), but that there is no coalition for good health care finance reform--even with Our Only President and his legislative allies having co-opted labor, business, the AMA and a big chunk of Big Pharma. Or, rather, that having got a coalition of all those together with the political left-of-center, we still didn't have enough of a popular push to get real momentum. There was, of course, a coalition, and sixty votes in the Senate, which is pretty amazing, but not for a particularly good bill.


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