The Capitol Building in Washington.
Christian Heeb/laif/Redux

The problem of political precedents

Updated
In a democracy, fear is supposed to be a powerful motivator for policymakers. There’s a constant realization that there’s always another election coming, and those who want to keep their jobs – and avoid voters’ wrath – will have to be responsible stewards of the public trust.
 
But what if these norms start to break down? What if the incentives baked into the cake prove to be faulty?
 
Kevin Drum made a comment last week that struck a chord, noting that Americans seemed inclined to blame Democrats, not Republicans, “for the rising dysfunction of the federal government.”
[This] is especially galling for Democrats, but it’s a win for Republicans and yet another sign of change in the way Washington is likely to work in the future. Republicans have discovered that a sufficiently united party can obstruct everything and anything but largely escape blame for the resulting gridlock.
 
This lesson has not been lost on Democrats, and it bodes ill for the future regardless of who wins our next few elections.
I think that’s correct and it’s a point that’s not repeated nearly enough.
 
In a democratic model, the last couple of years have been a mess of historic proportions. Republicans, consciously or not, decided to roll the dice – they would ignore the 2012 election results, refuse to govern, and kill measures regardless of their merit, popular support, or bipartisan appeal. They would shut down the government. They would eschew compromise. They would ignore calls to present policy solutions of their own. They would create the least productive Congress in modern American history.
 
And then they would wait for the American people to give them a reward.
 
Which voters delivered yesterday with a lovely bow on top.
 
When there is no accountability in a political system, there is no incentive for even well-intentioned policymakers to behave responsibly. It seems quite twisted: an unpopular party with unpopular ideas failed miserably at basic governance, and was rewarded handsomely for its efforts. The process isn’t supposed to work this way, and yet we now know it works exactly this way.
 
The resulting precedent is more than a little discouraging. When failure is rewarded, it encourages more failure. When obstruction is rewarded, it encourages more obstructionWhen radicalism is rewarded, it encourages more radicalism. When a refusal to compromise is rewarded, it means politicians will be led to believe they, too, should refuse to work on bipartisan solutions.
 
It’s not a recipe for sound governance.
 

Midterm Elections 2014 and Congress

The problem of political precedents

Updated