This statement from David Frum is one of the more honest sentences in journalism I’ve read in some time. Analyzing Obama’s bungling of the debt crisis—having failed to back the GOP into a corner, Obama is now hoping for a best-case deal in which he gets massive cuts in Democratic programs with not much in the way of tax increases—Frum writes:
[Obama] issued no public call to constituencies like the financial industry to bring pressure to bear on the issue.
Reading along, noting those strong declarative terms—issued, public, call, constituency—you think Frum is going to say something like: Obama “issued no public call to constituencies like the labor movement” or Obama “issued no public call to constituencies like the elderly.” Instead, he slips in that mention of the financial industry, which is not, to put it politely, what we ordinarily think of as a constituency.
Constituency is a weighty political term. With its connections to “constitution,” it evokes the act of founding a new polity and constructing its fundamentals. Like a constitution, constituents constitute (parties, presidencies, congresses). It also has strong biblical and democratic overtones. Biblical because constituting has a suggestion of creation about it: governments are created; they also create (laws, charters, wars, colonies). Democratic because it is ultimately only the people—or those who speak in their name—who can truly create something. When the leaders of the French Revolution decided that France should be governed as a republic, not a feudal monarchy, they convened not as three separate estates but as the National Constituent Assembly. It was the people who constituted the government; they were the government’s constituency.
Moving back to Frum territory, it is governments that constitute banks (and corporations), not the other way around. That is why we don’t ordinarily think of banks as a constituency. Indeed, Thomas Macaulay, the 19th century British Whig often cited by tonier conservatives like Frum as a predecessor, admitted in a 1831 letter to his sister that he had tried to attach the word constituency to business interests but that it somehow felt inappropriate: “I happened, in speaking about the Reform Bill, to say that I wished that it had been possible to form a few commercial constituencies, if the word constituency were admissible.” (His aristocratic interlocutor replied that she thought constituency “an odious word.” She got its indelible democratic association.)
Frum, former speechwriter to George W. Bush, is now a regular pain in the GOP ass, poking his erstwhile colleagues on the right to move to the center. He’s also one of the shrewder observers of the Democratic scene. I’m not sure if he’s being snide or sincere here, but that artful equation of the financial industry and Obama’s constituency stings. Not just because it’s true, but also because it shows how degraded a political term like “constituency” has become when it is so easily and mellifluously applied to something as undemocratic and unpolitical as a bank.
Update (11:55 am)
Ezra Klein has an excellent chart, comparing the budget deals (specifically, the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases) negotiated by Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Obama. Totally confirms what Frum says about how Obama is getting screwed and screwing himself (assuming, of course, that in an ideal world he’d prefer to see a different outcome—an assumption it’s getting increasingly difficult to sustain). As a side note: it’s a sad commentary on the state of the left that increasing taxes is how we count a Democratic win these days. It just confirms in the public mind that the only thing the Democrats have to offer is more taxes, as opposed to valuable government programs. For more on this, see my earlier post.