Thanks to all who participated yesterday. We narrowed the field to three:
Adam Verslype: Could American politics ever sustain a competitive third party?
Mike Dobbs: One of the defenses offered up by the hard Right is that extremism is the same or worse on the Left. Is this a legitimate argument or is it an outdated one?
Danny Case: How much would vigorous campaign finance reform really curtail the influence of lobbyists?
The book goes to Danny Case, who will receive his Kindle copy of Patriots later this morning. He should check his Facebook account for a message from Noah Kristula-Green. I'll offer short answers to Adam and Mike as well:
How much would vigorous campaign finance reform really curtail the influence of lobbyists?
The way to think about this question is to compare and contrast the U.S. to other advanced democracies. All have lobbying; none has anything like the lobbying culture of the United States.
What makes the difference? The campaign finance system, sure. No other democracy allows lobbyists to pay so lavishly for favors sought from government. Nowhere else does campaigning cost so much.
But even if campaign finance were reformed in ways that reduced the money flow from donors to legislators, the U.S. system would be uniquely lobbyist-friendly.
Imagine yourself an industry seeking a favor from the British government. Who might help you? The prime minister of course. His (small) staff. The relevant cabinet minister(s). Their (very small) staffs. Some key figures in the civil service. That's about it. The vast majority of the Members of Parliament can do little more for you than the typical person in the street.
So while it may make sense to invest some time and effort swaying those M.P.s, your lobbying effort will be constrained the scarcity of your targets and their difficulty of access.
Ultra-centralized Britain is an extreme case, but similar considerations hold true in France, Germany, Australia, and so on.
In the U.S., by contrast, there are thousands of people with the power to advance an interest group's agenda. It's the number of people available to influence that makes influence-peddling so expensive.
If the executive were more powerful as against the legislature (as in other democracies); or if leadership were more concentrated inside the legislature (as in the U.S. 50 years ago); lobbyists would spend less, because there would be less to spend it on.
Can American politics ever sustain a third party?
U.S. politics has sustained third parties in the past: Populists, Greenbackers, Prohibitionists. Even today there are Libertarians who sometimes have an impact. U.S. institutions are unfriendly to third parties, but the same is true in Britain and Canada, yet they have them. A third party will come when there arises some issue that is important to large numbers of people, but that the two old parties for reasons of their own cannot address.
Is extremism as bad on the left?
The left can certainly be as extreme as the right. But the worst manifestations of left-wing extremism occur much further from political power than the extremism of the right. Ward Churchill was a university professor, not a member of Congress. And the leaders of the Democratic party are much less frightened of their party's left than the leaders of the GOP are by their party's right, as John Boehner underscored again Tuesday with his comment re-opening the door to a default on the national debt as a deliberate act. Boehner doesn't mean it. It's telling he feels he must say it.