The curious case of Arlen Specter
How do representative democracies work?
In a drawn out lamentation, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) writes in today’s New York Times that Arlen Specter’s (D-PA) defection can be blamed on Republicans “failing to undertake the re-evaluation of our inclusiveness as a party that could have forestalled many of the losses we have suffered.”
Snowe proceeds, perhaps unintentionally, to stumble on a few landmines that put her political outlook at odds with a theory of representative democracy.
Senator Specter indicated that his decision was based on the political situation in Pennsylvania, where he faced a tough primary battle. In my view, the political environment that has made it inhospitable for a moderate Republican in Pennsylvania is a microcosm of a deeper, more pervasive problem that places our party in jeopardy nationwide.
Primaries are part of the representative process. Party adherents, whom Specter would represent in a general election, use the primary to decide which candidate most accurately represents their views. Of course, what Snowe could be criticizing in the very primary process, which distills an ideological subsection from the overall electorate. This narrows the field according to whether candidates check particular ideological boxes well before all constituents have a chance to weigh in, and therefore slants the playing field in favor of party loyalists.
There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party. Ideological purity is not the ticket back to the promised land of governing majorities . . .
This is a distinctly political argument, but seems cut against the very basis of our representative system. Our legislative body has been designed precisely to be regional. The lower and upper houses of Congress (the House and Senate, respectively) were arranged just in order to assuage colonial fears that a federal government would grow into a watered-down monarchy. The intent of our constitutional order was never to unify American politics behind a centralized ideological banner, but to adequately centralize government without threatening state autonomy.
Perhaps Snowe’s claim makes more sense in the unique context of the Senate. Some argue the Senate should be an an antipode to the House, which has a more popular orientation (both in the frequency of elections and the use of population for redistricting). As an elite, deliberative body, the Senate may well aspire to represent “all” Americans, rather than segmented or regional interests.
Of course, Snowe’s position, as stated, is clearly a more expansive view (and criticism) of how Republicans as a national party have framed their interests.
Third, quoting Reagan:
It is for this reason that we should heed the words of President Ronald Reagan, who urged, “We should emphasize the things that unite us and make these the only ‘litmus test’ of what constitutes a Republican: our belief in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty.”
This establishes a decision procedure for Republicanism, one that reiterates and clarifies Snowe’s problematic take on our legislature. Reagan was a President, elected to represent everyone. Specter was elected to stand for Pennsylvania Republicans in a general election to represent the state. If his political inclinations have changed such that he no longer desires to advocate on behalf of Pennsylvania Republicans, then his abandonement of that party makes sense.
But the litmus test for inclusion in the Pennsylvania Republican Party should not be what unites all Republicans. It should be what unites all Pennsylvania Republicans.