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May 06, 2013 11:03 AM Interest Groups: Greedy Bastards and Democracy

By Jonathan Bernstein

Teaching a class about American politics, Congress, interest groups, or some related topics? You really should find room for this comment, from a Ryan Grim and John Celock article about the online sales tax fight:

As one moderate Democratic senator put it during the swipe fee fight, “I’m surprised at how much of our time is spent trying to divide up the spoils between various economic interests. I had no idea. I thought we’d be focused on civil liberties, on education policy, energy policy and so on.”
“The fights down here can be put in two or three categories: The big greedy bastards against the big greedy bastards; the big greedy bastards against the little greedy bastards; and some cases even the other little greedy bastards against the other little greedy bastards,” the senator said, requesting anonymity so as not to alienate any of the bastards, regardless of size.

Yup. It is possible to take this point of view too far; it’s not true that all US politics is simply interest group fights in which ideas of principle, ideology, or general public good are mostly or even entirely irrelevant. But there’s a lot more of it than you would think from press coverage of Congress, the presidency, and elections. These fights are not, generally, along the lines of business vs. labor, or business vs. consumer, or business vs. the environment. There’s no “good guys” or “bad guys” (whoever you think good and bad buys are). There’s just greedy bastards — although one of the ways they fight is to try to make people think there are good guys vs. bad guys, and the political culture encourages them to do so.

Quick note: I don’t think that’s a bad thing! One of the ways of thinking about politics is that it’s about who gets what. Nothing wrong with that; politics in a democracy is a better way of settling those kinds of questions than brute force, direct payoffs, or some of the other ways they can be settled. And I think it’s also fine that we encourage the participants to pretend that the common good matters even when it’s really just a fight between greedy bastards; it’s a positive incentive for better behavior.

But going back to the main point about how common this is: If you don’t understand that, there’s a big part of US politics that you’re missing.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.