On the meaning of asymmetrical majorities

Why, indeed, are some majorities seemingly more effective than others?

By Thomas Schaller
December 16, 2009 10:35PM (UTC)
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I didn't realize it until I saw this morning his post from yesterday, but apparently I was channeling John Aravosis yesterday. Or he me. Or whatever--it was some sort of weird mind meld.

Generally frustrated about health care reform's fate the past few days, but specifically writing about climate change, I asked why it seems that the public majorities necessary to pass progressive agenda items always seem to be, ex ante, higher than those required to pass conservative agenda items? "More than anything else--the bias of the media, think tanks or other institutions, which is a related and relevant element--the political reality that less support is needed, say, to pass a tax cut for rich people or start a war than is needed to expand health care coverage or raise the minimum wage, testifies to the fact that the political system is generally skewed against progressive reforms," I wrote.


AmericaBlog's Aravosis was looking more specifically at health care and more specifically at Senate partisan majorities than public polling figures when he raised a similar question: Why were GWBush and his smaller Republican Senate majorities seemingly able to get more done than Obama and his larger Senate majority at present? But the essential, underlying question we are both asking is the same one. Only our answers differ.

Aravosis' answer revolves around an intangible, namely, political resolve:

What the GOP lacked in numbers, they made up for in backbone, cunning and leadership. Say what you will about George Bush, he wasn't afraid of a fight. If anything, the Bush administration, and the Republicans in Congress, seemed to relish taking on Democrats, and seeing just how far they could get Democratic members of Congress to cave on their promises and their principles. Hell, even Senator Barack Obama, who once famously promised to lead a filibuster against the FISA domestic eavesdropping bill, suddenly changed his mind and actually voted for the legislation. Such is the power of a president and a congressional leadership with balls and smarts.

I don't disagree with John. But as I said yesterday, I think there is something more systematic, specifically in the way that the conservative agenda is buffered by the power system in Washington in many ways and to a greater degree than is the progressive agenda. There are exceptions to this rule, but overall, I think there's an obvious and semi-permanent asymmetry at work here.


Part of this is not ideological, mind you, other than in the literal fact that conservatives tend to want to do less or change less rapidly or less dramatically than progressives do. And because the status quo "wins" whenever nothing is done, or at least generally survives when only little or incremental changes are made to it--this is a staple assumption of game theory and social choice theories, btw--well, that means there is a built-in advantage for (most) conservative policies and for conservatism as a philosophical approach to governance. This may not be fair, you say. But it is the ineluctable state of political nature, so to speak.

That said, let's dovetail John's observations with my own. If what I've said above means the political playing field will always have a slightly downhill tilt for conservatives/status quo-defenders/Republicans (or however you want to label one side), that means it is accordingly tilted uphill for their opponents: progressives/change agents/Demcrats. The tilt may be slight or steep; and on occasion, such as when the political stars are perfectly aligned (1933? 1964?), the tilt may even go in the opposite, progressive-favoring way for some period of time. But in general, the asymmetry exists and it is real.

That said, the political demand for "balls and smarts," to borrow Jon's typically direct and apt language, is unavoidably bigger for progressives, the burden of political skill and courage greater. Again, that may not seem fair, but it's the reality. It's one of the reason that the Left/progressives are often depicted, correctly at that, as tougher on their own Democrats than are the Right/conservatives are on Republicans--but it's also a warrant for being tougher on Democrats and having bigger expectations in the first place. After all, something needs to be added to the calculus to compensate for the handicap that the political system imposes, to varying degrees of severity, but more or less perpetually upon progressive change or reform.


And I think this recognition is what has disheartened many progressives as the one-year anniversary of Obama's administration, in combination with those nearly 60 percent Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, approaches. We were told this is the biggest crisis since the Great Depression. We were promised bold action. In effect, we believed the playing field's tilt was at least even--and maybe tilted slightly in a downhill direction for some brief window of opportunity. On top of that, Obama's got mad political skillz, at least rhetorically and in terms of iconography. And in his campaign, wow, what guts and poise he demonstrated all at once. And as far as Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the former may seem a bit wanting (though as I discussed yesterday, he holds the weakest cards), but the latter surely is formidable. In short, it seemed like the political planets were all in line.

And so disappointment is not unreasonable. This is not Bill Clinton in 1995, or even in 1993. It's damn sure not Jimmy Carter in 1979. This is Barack and Nancy and Harry in 2009. Nobody was expecting them to deliver the sun and the moon--but many of us were expecting a lot of stars to shine, and to shine brightly.

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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