Should Democrats Trust “the System”?

Should any of us? In an op-ed in the New York Times think tank member Lee Drutman presents a somewhat different view of the Democrats’ way forward than the one presented by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer the other day:

As Democrats try to unite around their new “Better Deal” agenda, the supposed battle between the “socialist” left and the “corporatist” center seems to have collapsed into a bland but serviceable slogan, with a reasonably progressive economic agenda that both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Charles Schumer can get behind. So much for that overhyped party civil war.

But Democrats shouldn’t be trumpeting party unity quite yet. The economic-left-versus-center debate has always been primarily an elite one.

Among the Democratic rank-and-file, the more consequential divide is between those willing to trust the existing establishment and those who want entirely new leadership. It’s a divide that Democratic Party leaders ignore at their peril.

That’s his statement of the problem. Here’s the solution he proposes:

What if, instead of spending billions on consultants, TV ads and mailers engineered to stoke zero-sum partisanship, party leaders and affiliated funders invested in increasing the paid staff of local party organizations, and then sought their input and advice?

With a real investment, community organizations could help Democratic voters feel genuinely invested in their party, including giving them more of a role in helping to develop and select local candidates. Voters might gain more appreciation for the actual challenges of winning a majority — rather than just shouting about how the party establishment is corrupt from their Facebook pages.

As with many visions of this sort, Mr. Drutman’s handle on the problem is sounder than his take on the solution because he doesn’t take human nature into account. For his plan to work you must believe that party leaders are selfless patriots, more interested in the welfare of their constituents than they are in their own good, against all evidence.

Take Illinois (please!). House Speaker Mike Madigan is 75 and has held his job for most of the last 35 years. Politics and appealing property assessments are the family businesses, supporting not just him but his children as well. One daughter, Lisa, is presently Illinois’s Attorney General. His other three children are all dependent on the nexus of politics and business for their livelihoods. There’s a good profile of Speaker Madigan and his family at Chicago Magazine:

Madigan embraced the girl, Lisa, as his own, even formally adopting her after she turned 18. The couple went on to have three more children, whose professional lives have also not strayed far from their father’s vast sphere of influence. Tiffany, now 35, is an attorney who specializes in corporate and financial law at McGuireWoods (which has donated $46,000 to the speaker and another $10,500 to Lisa since 2006).Her husband, the attorney and lobbyist Jordan Matyas, is the chief of staff for the Regional Transportation Authority. (He used to work as an assistant legal counsel in the speaker’s office and in 2005 helped draft the state’s Payday Loan Reform Act. As a lobbyist, he later represented the Florida-based company that won state contracts to track payday lenders.)

Nicole Madigan, 33, is a real-estate attorney at DLA Piper (which has contributed $42,000 to Lisa since 2005). And last, there’s Andrew, 27, a vice president at the politically connected Mesirow Financial, which has received a bevy of state contracts and municipal bond work. Shirley, for good measure, has been an appointed member of the Illinois Arts Council since 1976—longer than her husband has been speaker—and its chairwoman for more than 20 years.

There are no financial disclosure laws in Illinois that cover state representatives or speakers so no one really knows how wealthy Speaker Madigan may be. His operations may be legal but there are obvious conflicts of interests and they’re inherently corrupt.

Is it any wonder that Gov. Rauner’s reforms, which include term limits and a property tax freeze, are anathema to him? They hit him where he lives.

During Speaker Madigan’s tenure, Illinois has gone from being reasonably well run as states go with a prospering economy and good credit rating to losing population, losing businesses, having its political corruption splashed all over the front pages across the country, and having the worst credit rating in the nation. Speaker Madigan has just been re-elected.

The system is working fine for him. Why would he want to change it?

2 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Money matters. People tend to look at donations and sometimes think money is not a huge factor in politics. The real money is in the jobs, contracts, favors, legislation, regulations that you get for yourself, family and friends.


  • I think that the preponderance of the evidence tells us that money only matters in elections up to a certain point. After that spending more is just throwing good money after bad. You can’t help but wonder if that isn’t the point a good deal of the time.

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