Chris Bowers asks “if, given the current structure of our federal government, it is even possible to have the federal government operate to the left of national public opinion in the way that it often operates to the right of national public opinion.” While identifying some key obstacles to left-wing governance — de facto requirement of 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate, massive corporate donations to elected officials, small-state bias & difficulties even with large Democratic majorities — Bowers isn’t optimistic. To me, though, the only one of these that is impactful in any sort of ontological way is the influence of corporate money in politics and the disproportionate power corporate money has in small states (as Nate Silver’s analysis shows).
Stronger leadership from the Senate could create a dynamic where the consequences of reactionary filibusters on every piece of liberal legislation have consequences. There was a time, namely that of Republican majority throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, when it did not take 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate. Only with the return of the Republican Party to the minority did we see this radical turn that has effectively changed the rules of the Senate. A Democratic leader with more spine than Harry Reid and a caucus with less bias towards conservative policies pushed for twenty years by the DLC would surely respond differently to this scenario.
The same can be said about the level of energy needed to pass liberal legislation even while we maintain large Democratic majorities, as we do now. An untangling of Democrats from the Republican-Lite model pushed by so many operatives and observers within the Beltway would enable a different set of ontic possibilities. Gradually shifting the behavior patterns of conserva-Dems who vote far to the right of their district would enable far more to be possible in the House. This can be achieved either through strong-arming Blue Dogs by leadership or successful primaries by more liberal Democrats. This would either diminish the functional power of the Blue Dog caucus or shrink its size. Simultaneously, a strengthening of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with the liberal tri-caucus, would create a much different environment for legislation. If the CPC and tri-caucus could exert power over legislation the way Blue Dogs currently do, we would immediately see a leftward shift in the output from the House. This is something we are seeing the CPC try to move towards in a very concerted effort in the healthcare fight; their success would have the potential to leave lasting marks on the ideological shaping of legislation under large Democratic majorities. Put this together with stronger Democratic leadership in the Senate and punative measures that discourage reactionary filibusters to the point of neutering them and you’re very likely to see better left-wing governance based on the removal or reduction of two out of Bowers four areas of concern.
But the scope of corporate influence on politics, especially their wholesale ownership of so many small state senators, is a fundamental problem that is nearly impossible to counter. The obvious path to remove these obstacles to left-wing governance is to push for public financing of federal elections. There is no chance that the corporate world, nor conservative politicians would let this happen without a massive fight, as they know that their money is the biggest obstacle to reform in any area.
Before we can adequately assess the likelihood of major campaign finance reform, we have to recognize that at no point in time has an American president or a majority of the Democratic Party pushed for public financing of federal elections. Today public financing may not be possible. But it is impossible to suggest that it is fundamentally impossible while the issue has lacked any meaningful advocacy from the people with the largest microphones. Change is surely possible if there is meaningful leadership on the issue. The question really becomes, who has the courage to stand up to America’s corporate interests? Who will stand up for the public in the face of campaign contributions? This is an issue that will be defined by the courage or lack there of found in Democratic leaders.
There’s no doubt that Bowers is right and there are huge fundamental hurdles to left-wing governance in America. But they are not insurmountable, at least not with leadership. The question I have isn’t whether left-wing governance is possible, but is left-wing leadership possible? That, in many ways, precedes any question about governance, for without leadership we will never get to see governance actualized.