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US Independence Day author Q&A: part four

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Happy Independence Day to our American readers! In honor of Independence Day in the United States, we asked some of our influential American history and politics VSI authors to ask each other some pointed questions related to significant matters in America. Their passionate responses inspired a four day series leading up to America’s 237th birthday today. Today Richard M. Valelly, author of American Politics: A Very Short Introduction wraps up the series with his answers. Previously L. Sandy Maisel, Donald A. Ritchie, and Charles O. Jones shared their views.

L. Sandy Maisel (American Political Parties and Elections VSI) asked: Should political leaders be judged by their ability to achieve compromise solutions to divisive issues or by their willingness to stand on principle, rather than to compromise? 

Richard M. Valelly: I agree with the implicit premise of your question, that a dilemma has emerged for presidential or congressional leadership — compromise is no longer celebrated, and instead is criticized and denounced by pundits or advocacy groups. On the other hand, there is an austerity caucus in American politics — and a great deal of alarmism about major public policies being broken when in fact they are not, a leading example being Social Security, which needs only marginal adjustments to survive. So calls for compromise can be stalking horses for sweeping and unnecessary changes to successful programs. Standing on principle may, counter-intuitively, promote caution and prudent action.

L. Sandy Maisel: At other times in our nation’s history when partisan rancor has dominated the policymaking process, what steps have leaders taken to move the national discussion forward?

Richard M. Valelly: A time-honored step is the commission model. Another is to go on a listening tour. But ultimately the best step is to listen carefully to what well-designed and reliable surveys tell us about what the public wants. Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro made a strong case for the rational public some time ago — and we know from the work of Martin Gilens that much of the public is ignored. That needs to change. The majorities that show up in public polls are artifacts of surveys, yes, but they tell us a lot about the citizenry wants government to do. Nate Silver said it best: there is a signal in the noise. Let’s listen to these signals. I’m not calling for government-by-polling, but I do think that the ordinary citizen needs better representation for the simple reason that ordinary citizens are remarkably moderate.

Charles O. Jones (The American Presidency VSI) asked: Conventional wisdom has it the out-party does not have either a single leader, or even, nationally, a means to integrate policy proposals. Yet today the Republican Party is challenged to have an “agenda” akin to a national platform. Is this a change? Or merely a media illusion?

Richard M. Valelly: This is a change, and it goes back to the speakership of James Wright and the speakerships since then, including the Contract With America. The out-party has been programmatic for nearly 30 years now, as David Rohde first showed in his discussion of conditional party government.

Charles O. Jones: What has been the effect on the congressional committees of having outside “gangs” and/or public agenda campaigns by presidents? Immigration being the most recent case, Social Security for Bush 43 (but there are many such).

Richard M. Valelly: The “gangs” and other informal coalitions broker discussions that are now harder for formal party leaders than they once were. They seem to be a partial solution to the effects of polarization on the policy process.

Donald A. Ritchie (The US Congress VSI) asked: The US Congress has been called a “broken branch.” If that’s so, whose fault is it: the institution, the political parties, or the voters?

Richard M. Valelly: Polarization has changed Congress, so the short answer is that the parties are at fault. But Congress is very resilient, as such congressional developmental scholars as Sarah Binder, David Mayhew, and Eric Schickler, among others have shown. Sarah is probably the most concerned, and David the most sanguine within the community of political science congressionalists. There is some fascinating new work by Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman that shows that “gridlock” is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon, but varies by issue domain. And as Scott Adler and John Wilkerson have shown, a lot of the congressional agenda is non-discretionary. Congress does lots of work all the time. If anything seems really broken, it is regular order in the budget process, but we’ve been there before (we spent the entire 19th century there in fact), and deficit politics, in an age of fiscal constraint, is going to make Congress look “broken” for quite a while. But I’m not sure that that means that the institution itself is anywhere near being permanently broken.

Richard M. Valelly is Claude C. Smith ’14 Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College. His publications include American Politics: A Very Short Introduction, Princeton Readings in American Politics (2009), The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (2004), which won several prizes, and Radicalism in the States: The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the American Political Economy (1989).

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook. Read more in the Independence Day Q&A series.

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