Taxes and the Myth of Democratic Efficiency
Steve Kornacki notes that 19 House Democrats broke with their party on letting the Bush tax break for the richest to expire. As always, the willingness of some Democrats to defect on votes that the White House and congressional leadership are trying to use to draw a contrast with the Republicans on muddies the message and makes mobilizing one’s own side more difficult.
To be fair, plenty of House Democrats from competitive districts did vote for their party’s tax plan. But almost every incumbent on the “no” list who is seeking reelection is in a competitive or potentially competitive race. This speaks to a phenomenon I wrote about a few weeks ago – that even though voters tell pollsters they like the idea of raising taxes on the rich, they won’t necessarily reward leaders who do it (and, in fact, they may actually punish them). A number of vulnerable House Democrats are sensitive to this possibility, and the result is less unity on the Democratic side than on the GOP side.
Follow the link and what do you find? A story about how Republicans Senators in Indiana and Utah have found themselves under assault in Republican Party nomination battles –assaults which are of course funded by the elite conservative machine. This is hardly evidence about what voters in Democratic-held districts want.
Does that mean that voters are itching to reward Democrats for voting for raising taxes on the rich? No. But voters don’t generally reward legislators for how they vote. If legislators and the party make an issue out of something, if they treat their actions are worthy of being rewarded, they might. But it doesn’t happen automatically. Kornacki slips here into the myth of democratic efficiency—the idea that electoral outcomes are a straightforward manifestation of aggregated individual opinions, rather than shaped by institutions and elite strategies. Hacker and Pierson have detailed why this is not the case in particular with the modern Republican Party. Progressives generally reject the ridiculous claim that this is how the economy works—that investor confidence and workers laziness is responsible for the recession rather than the reduction of aggregate demand, coming from the crash of the housing bubble, reductions in government spending, opportunities for profit that don’t create jobs, the feedback loop of unemployment, etc.
Yet we all too often accept it in politics.