Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Politics and Representation

In a speech given at Munich University in 1918, Max Weber asserted that "politics" "means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state." As a social theorist, Weber was interested in the strategies for "striving to share power;" but he knew that the practice of politics had much more to do with how that power came to be distributed. One wonders how he would react to the current struggle to conclude a budget for the state of California in a setting in which 20,000 employees of the state (all of them, presumably, voters) may well lose their jobs in the absence of such a budget that would provide their salaries. However, these employees, however large their numbers may be, do not signify in those structures of power that are either distributed or shared in the Legislative and Executive branches of the state government. Thus, the primary concern in State Senate deliberations is not employment but the Republican share of the power system; and that share seems to be based on a single ideological precept, which is the inherent evil of taxation. The power of this ideology was felt by all of us when we woke up this morning to word of its impact on the Republican Senators themselves. Here is how Wyatt Buchanan and Matthew Yi reported the news (at 2:28 this morning) for the San Francisco Chronicle:

A state budget deal to close a $41 billion shortfall has been put further into question early this morning after Senate Republicans ousted their leader who had helped negotiate the long-awaited plan with other top lawmakers in California.

The unusual action occurred as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers tried for a fourth night in a row to persuade at least one more Republican senator to cast the deciding vote on the budget, a move officials said is necessary for the state to avoid insolvency.

Speaking to reporters outside his office, the ousted Minority Leader Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, said, "It's a shame it ended like this."

Cogdill was one of the four legislative leaders who negotiated the emergency budget deal with the governor. Their compromise budget package, reached after three months of negotiations, contained nearly $16 billion in program cuts, $11 billion in borrowing and $14.4 billion in tax increases. The most contentious debate has been over the proposed tax hikes.

Republicans selected Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta (Riverside County) as their new Minority leader. Hollingsworth is part of the conservative wing of the Senate Republican caucus and he has been adamantly against raising any taxes.

If ever there were a time to appreciate President John Adams' aversion to the concept of political parties, this would be it. Even Weber recognized that the definition and management of a political party had nothing to do with the extent to which those in office represented those who elected them. Rather, it had to do with the distribution of power within the party itself and the tendency of a single "boss" to manage that distribution of power:

The boss has no firm political ‘principles’; he is completely unprincipled in attitude and asks merely: What will capture votes?

In a discussion of partisanship on last night's NewsHour on PBS, one analyst observed that, in the early days of the Clinton Administration, Newt Gingrich was so focused on establishing Republican control of the House of Representatives that he forbade Republican Representatives from continuing their regular tennis games with colleagues from across the aisle. Cross-party socialization has long provided paths to the sharing of power that satisfied all involved parties; but Gingrich was concerned only with redistributing that power. Now we are seeing similar thinking in play in the California Senate, going all the way down to who will serve as minority leader. Ultimately, the real losers in this power game are the people of California, who are discovering that their elected representatives are beholden to forces more powerful than the voters. Rather, they are, as Weber put it (even though he was talking about England), victims of a "dictatorship resting on the exploitation of mass emotionality." The only thing sadder than the current budgetary impasse in California is that Gingrich has left a legacy in which all of our country's voters are victims of that same "exploitation of mass emotionality." President Barack Obama is may trying hard to get our national culture beyond such vulnerability; but it is clear that he has not yet made very much progress, whether in California or in any other part of the country.

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