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Michael Tomasky on the problems of the Senate

Michael Tomasky published a helpful essay, "The Specter Haunting the Senate," in the New York Review of Books (9/30/10).

Exerpts:
–"The truth is that no institution of American government is more responsible for our inability to address pressing national problems than the Senate, and no institution is in greater need of reform. Another truth, alas: probably no institution is more resistant to reform."
–"While all this is of concern to liberals at the moment, the problem of the Senate should trouble all citizens. Any party with a president and fifty-nine senators (counting the two independents who caucus with the party), not to mention a seventy-eight-seat House majority, ought to have a fair chance to enact its programs. It would need minority input, to be sure, but the specter of a minority veto, which some founders warned against, would not loom over all deliberations, as is the case today, thanks largely to the cloture rule. In fairness to both parties, when they have a decent-sized majority, they should not have to muster a supermajority. Chances of passing legislation without one, slim as they are, hinge on dispensing with current myths about the Senate. There are four chief myths."
–"The first myth is that the founders wanted the upper house to follow the principles of supermajorities, such as the sixty votes now needed to end debate on a measure."
–"The second myth is that the founders specifically sanctioned the filibuster."
–"The third myth is that the Senate has consistently opposed any and all attempts to cut off debate and reform its procedures; that senators want things just the way they are."
–"The final main myth is to be found in the so-called “little-harm” thesis. Defenders of the filibuster maintain that the supermajority requirement really hasn’t had much impact on the work of the Senate after all; it has killed legislation only rarely, and in several cases, its defenders maintain, it has improved legislation, making it more acceptable to the American public, cooling hot tea just as Washington envisioned"
–"I can readily believe that this [growing time pressure on senators, compared to 30 years ago] is a factor, and perhaps an important one. It is surely one reason why we never see Mr. Smith–style filibusters anymore (another being, I think, fear by the minority of criticism in the press). But surely polarization is the main reason. If the current Republican caucus of forty-one senators included, say, twelve or fifteen moderates rather than the two to four who are there now, the demands on their time would be unchanged, but surely the health bill would have received a few GOP votes.
–"What we have now, as Madison and Hamilton warned, is minority rule, with the Senate majority paying the political price for the gridlock as problems and crises go unaddressed."

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Congressional Reform

On this page you'll find analysis of how the rules and procedures of the Senate and House of Representatives contribute to incivility

–This page maintained by Jon Haidt (for now)

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Stewart/Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and the Psychology of Moderates

As someone who is interested in promoting civility and reason in politics, I have been really excited over the past few days by Jon Stewart’s announcement of a Rally to Restore Sanity (“Million Moderate March”), coupled with Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive”.  The below video, where the announcement is made, is well worth watching, if only for it’s entertainment value.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Normally, we look at our yourmorals.org data in terms of liberals and conservatives, but what can we say about moderates.  In many instances (e.g. Measures of general moral or political positions using Moral Foundations or Schwartz Values), moderates score between liberals and conservatives.  However, there are a couple interesting findings about moderates in our data that might be of interest.

First, moderates are less engaged in politics.  This isn’t a particularly controversial finding as research in social psychology shows that extreme attitudes are more resistant to change and more likely to predict behavior.  Moderates are defined by their lack of extremity and this lack of extremity predicts a disinterest in politics and lack of desire to engage in political action.

As such, it is not surprising that, as Stewart notes, the only voices which often get heard are the loudest voices.  Shouting hurts your throat and moderates are unwilling to pay that price.  But couched in terms of entertainment and comedy?  Maybe that will spur moderates to attend in a way that an overtly political/partisan event could never do.

Going a bit deeper, the other area where moderates score differently than liberals and conservatives is in terms of their willingness to moralize issues.  Moderates are less likely to frame issues as moral and less likely to be moral maximizers. Morality can be a great force for good, but there is also research on idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction.  You’ll notice that while liberals and conservatives moralize individual issues in the below graph at different levels, the extremes generally moralize issues more than moderates or less extreme partisans.  It’s worth noting I recently attended a talk by Linda Skitka where her team found (in China) that high moralization scores predict willingness to spy on and censor people with opposing viewpoints.

Moderates also score lower on a general (not issue specific) measure of moral maximizing.  Below is a graph of scores on individual moral maximizing questions.  Again, a lot of good may be done in the name of morality and moral maximizers may be less willing to let people starve or let injustice stand.  However, a lot of bad may be done in the name of morality as well and “never settling” for imperfect moral outcomes seems like a recipe for the kind of political ugliness that we see these days.  Moderates appear willing to accept imperfection in the moral realm.

Maximizing is a concept made popular by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore in his book, the Paradox of Choice and his TED talk.  The argument isn’t that high standards are a bad thing…but that at some point, there is a level where overly high standards have negative consequences.  The point that Stewart and Colbert are making is that perhaps partisans have reached that point in our political dialogue, to the detriment of policy.

I probably won’t make it to DC, but I do plan on celebrating the Rally to Restore Sanity in some way, perhaps at a satellite event.  I am generally liberal and will be surrounded mainly (though not exclusively) by liberal friends.  It would be really easy to use the event as a time to mock and denigrate the extremity of the other side.  However, liberal moral absolutism has it’s dangers too.  For those of us who really want to restore sanity to political debate, it is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world and take a moment to reflect on how our political side can ‘take it down a notch for America’, rather than assuming that Stewart is talking to ‘them’.  And perhaps that begins with accepting some amount of moral imperfection.

- Ravi Iyer

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.