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The liberal failure of political reform

Be careful what you wish for, liberals: the more ideological Republicans may benefit.

Members of Congress including US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (C) listen to US President Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union speech in the House chamber of the US Capitol January 12, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Members of Congress including US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (C) listen to US President Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union speech in the House chamber of the US Capitol January 12, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders spent the 2016 primary campaign vowing to lead a political revolution that would fundamentally reform American politics. Like Sanders, many liberals believe that an unfair and corrupt political system controlled by privileged interests represents the chief obstacle to the realization of an otherwise popular left-wing agenda. Enacting reforms to the electoral and legislative process, they argue, would effectively remove this barrier, quickly producing a decisive leftward shift in the trajectory of national policy.

Yet history does not support this view. Liberals in the 1970s also believed that institutions were holding back the advancement of their favored policies. They sought and achieved reforms in campaign finance, party nominations, government transparency, and congressional organization that were designed to depose moderate and conservative Democratic leaders while bolstering the influence of liberal activists at the expense of "establishment" interest groups. Rather than usher in a period of ambitious liberal achievements, these reforms in fact coincided with the close of an era of left-of-center policy change.

We explore the reasons for this failure in our new book, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. Our analysis finds that the Democratic Party is a coalition of social groups, each with pragmatic policy concerns. This party structure was well adapted to a policymaking process that required brokering compromises among a large set of discrete interests to pass legislation, especially within a system of multiple congressional committees aligned with associated interest organizations and constituencies.

Scholars often treat the institutional reforms of the mid-1970s as enabling the transformation of the institutionally decentralized, ideologically incoherent, and interest-governed Democrats into a more unified, nationalized, liberal-dominated party. But our best measures of congressional ideology (displayed in the graph below) show that the Democratic Party has collectively moved only modestly to the left since that era, mostly due to the attrition of its conservative Southern wing.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, shifted abruptly to the right and never turned back — even as they captured a growing share of seats in both the House and Senate. The post-reform political system has allowed the flourishing of the more ideologically oriented party: the Republicans.

Party Ideology in the House of Representatives Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Like Sanders supporters in 2016, the reformers of the 1970s believed the public would reward policymakers who pursued myriad liberal policy objectives favored by voters — but it did not turn out that way. While the American public takes left-of-center positions on many specific policy issues, it also holds generally conservative views on the size and role of government, giving the Republican Party fertile ground to stoke a popular backlash against "big-government" liberalism.

The institutional reforms also did not produce the policy successes that liberals expected. New policies and programs were adopted at a declining rate after the mid-1970s, reflecting a rightward ideological shift in national politics.

The solid line in the graph below represents the number of significant domestic policy changes identified by policy historians in each two-year period. The dashed line represents the number of net liberal policy changes (liberal minus conservative changes). As the figure reveals, the pre-reform era of the 1960s and early '70s marked the high tide of both net policy liberalism and policymaking productivity.

Trends in Policymaking Productivity and Ideological Direction Courtesy of Oxford University Press

We do not claim that institutional reforms caused the decline in liberal policymaking, but there is certainly no evidence that reform led to the expected burst of new successes. A congressional GOP that was both growing in size and steadily moving to the ideological right was regularly able to block significant legislation. The increasingly diverse Democratic Party was never able to mount a return to the level of policy achievements that it reached in the 1960s.

Broader party and campaign reforms also failed to counter the influence of money in politics, but may have furthered the breakdown of previous cozy relationships between committees and Democratic-aligned interest groups and constituencies.

Note that the historical record gives conservatives good reason to be skeptical of legislative productivity: More new laws usually mean a shift to the ideological left.

As a result, Republican officeholders often focus more on blocking Democratic initiatives than on developing their own alternatives, concentrating instead on broader fights over taxation and the federal budget. We find that Congress is more productive under Democratic rule — not only in policymaking but also in committee hearings and in the number of substantive topics considered. In addition, Democratic presidents send far more new policy proposals to Congress and make more administrative changes within the executive branch.

The best measure of legislative effectiveness controls for these large differences in partisan productivity across time to focus on comparing legislators serving contemporaneously, but it still reveals important party differences. The graph below reports the relative success of each party's members in passing significant, as well as less important, legislation. Democratic committee chairs tend to be particularly effective at passing major bills, perhaps suggesting the benefits of the prior committee-based system for the Democratic Party. Republican backbenchers are surprisingly good at passing less important bills.

Legislative Effectiveness of Democratic and Republican Lawmakers Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Each party's unique approach to governing has important implications for reform of political institutions. The Democratic Party, as a coalition of social groups with multiple policy demands, seeks to regularly pass more legislation. The Republican Party, as the agent of an ideological movement opposed to government intervention and social change, is less active in policymaking overall.

As ambitious liberals consider proposals for future reform, they should assess whether each potential change is likely to benefit the Democratic coalition or the more ideological Republicans. History suggests reforms, once instituted, may not always have the effect that their advocates intend.

Matt Grossmann is the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. David A. Hopkins is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College. They are the authors of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.

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