I had an interesting exchange of Facebook comments with my friend Lee Wochner regarding the post Six Lessons. Since I keep my Facebook world pretty cloistered, I thought I’d share the comments with the wider world here on Autopsis.
Lee Wochner commented on your post.
“I’m not sure your metaphor applies to politics or governance. Capitulation and agreement and consensus are not always better than the toussle of strong wills. Slavery didn’t go easily into the night; neither did the Great Depression. Integrating the schools, building the social safety net, and passing financial reform all were championed and achieved by one faction over the objections the other. Perhaps bipartisanship is over-rated. Perhaps we need better partisans actively arguing their cause and pushing their platforms — and let the better argument win.”
Lee, 93% of Americans think there is too much partisanship in politics (NBC/WSJ poll). Even Bill White, Democratic candidate for governor in TX didn’t vote a straight ticket yesterday, saying, “We need to get away from this strident partisanship and sound bite politics.” I agree on all counts. For more info on why partisanship doesn’t work, read the “Getting from A to B” section here: http://autopsis.com/2010/06/12/facing-the-future/
Lee Wochner commented on your post.
“Doug, 93% of Americans are wrong about everything. Isn’t that a theme of your posts? We eat too much, exercise too little, follow celebrity advice, don’t plan for financial collapse, and on and on. The country wouldn’t have been founded had it been contingent upon a survey. What I’m asking is, can we identify examples in U.S. history where bipartisanship led to great success? I can’t think of any. Perhaps it’s over-rated.”
Lee, The theme of the compiled posts is that there are a converging set of existential threats that are not well understood or appreciated, hyper-partisanship being a major contributing factor among those. For examples of success via bipart…isanship, a good recent one is the financial stimulus. Economic policy-wonk, academic and non-partisan observer consensus is that it prevented another global depression. Working back from there, you should consider the lesser known, counter-intuitive / out-of-partisan-character changes such as medicare pharma benefits (W. Bush), welfare reform (Clinton) and the doubling of spending on the poor (Nixon). The iconic examples of U.S. bipartisan success are outspending the U.S.S.R. into oblivion, the Apollo program, WWII, etc. For non-U.S. examples, you don’t have to go any further than 33 miners in Chile. Anything is possible when people work to achieve a common goal. The challenge here in the U.S. is that there is no sense of national purpose, thus no common goal.
Lee Wochner commented on your post.
“Hm. The recent financial stimulus (which I agree was a success), was pushed through by the majority party (and now, by the way, the minority party is actively campaigning against it — including those who went with their hands out for funding projects back home). Welfare reform was driven by the Republicans (Clinton reluctantly signed it). Spending the USSR into oblivion was less a concerted endeavor spurred by policy, and more the excitement of everyone at lining up at the trough. Slavery was ended by the Republicans; the social safety net was created by the Democrats during the Great Depression. World War II was entered into late and reluctantly — after we were attacked; once we were threatened, then of course national purpose swung into view. I don’t see a great historic pattern of bi-partisanship achieving great results. What I do know is that a committed faction often achieves tremendous change (for good and bad).”
The cherry-picked examples you provide do not overcome the disastrous negative effects of gridlocked government populated with partisan ideologues. Politics, and thus public policy, is the art of the possible. The only thing that is possible with partisan ideologues is more partisanship.
The “tremendous change” you celebrate is the rallying cry of partisans everywhere. The tribal inclusion, emotional reward and status of believing in and participating in that “tremendous change” is what drives partisan recruitment and participation. That emotional reward comes from rallying the side to fight against the opposing partisans and the personification of all that is evil, the other side’s leader.
The resulting battle swings the nation left, then right, then left and then right again. During those about-face turns and charges left and then right there are overwhelming levels of righteous indignation and energy expended running this way and then that way. But none of that energy matters, nothing really matters, except defeating the other side.
Opposing, then advancing, back and forth the battle rages. From down in the partisan trenches, there is alternating euphoria and then terror, with certain doom only averted when the direction is changed once again.
From that perspective, down in the trenches, each side is filled with energy, sending wave after wave of true believers, Kool-aid drinkers and loyal foot-soldiers into the fray. Each side is bursting with the certain knowledge that they are saving the nation by opposing, at any cost, the other partisan side.
But, from an external perspective, from the outside looking in, it is clear that all the partisans are doing is running from sideline to sideline, left and then right. They are so consumed with partisan hatred they don’t realize that they are actually supposed to be on the same side, much less realize they are supposed to advance the ball down the field instead of running back and forth, left and then right.
In the country’s current situation, the partisans, locked in their eternal struggle to achieve and retain power at any cost, are extremely unlikely to notice that there are multiple common opponents, multiple existential threats, bearing down on them. The partisans will almost certainly remain locked in their internecine battle and never look up before they are steamrolled, en masse.
But in the meantime, there will be plenty of bread and circuses to keep the masses entertained, watching the partisans rush laterally left, then right, then left, then right…
Lee Wochner commented on your post.
“I took the thrust of your original blog post to be that we as a people would achieve greater if we worked in a bi-partisan fashion; bi-partisanship is almost definitionally consensus-based and majority-ordained. My point is that the great civil and social advances in America’s history were not ordained by the majority, and were not driven by consensus.
I’m not trying to cherry pick examples, but I’m not finding a great number of countervailing examples to my own list. Here are the achievements of the driven majority:
- abolition of slavery
- founding of the country
- women’s right to vote
- reproductive rights
- African Americans’ right to vote
- end of segregation
- creation of Welfare
- Welfare reform
- creation of social security
To my knowledge, the Clean Air and Water acts were bi-partisan, but they were driven by major, widespread concern and discontent. America’s role in World War II was launched in retaliation. I’m not sure that these support your argument.
Throughout its history, the country has swung left to right, right to left. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing (because let’s look at the countries that have swung only further left or further right — they provide horrific examples of totalitarian regimes). It also means that, inherently, most of the time the pendulum is near the center.
I’m also not sure that we’re going to see a sudden upswell of bi-partisanship, so the entire debate may be moot. If that is the case, then I’d rather engage with a partisanship that I agree with more, and work for change from within. (Which is what I’m doing.) Walking out of the game because I hate both teams wouldn’t accomplish anything.
The true problem — the baseline problem — is how our elections are funded. In most major races the contest boils down to a choice between a fantastically wealthy self-funded candidate with absolutely no public sector experience or a longtime politician hard-wired to a cellphone dialing for dollars all day. In either case, all the votes are bought and paid for. Unless or until we resolve that, we’re just playing around the margins.”
I am in full agreement that money in politics is the essential starting point to meeting the challenges of effective governance in the U.S. It’s estimated that more than $4 billion was spent on the campaign for today’s 2010 mid-term elections. That’s more than the GDP of 67 countries. That’s more than four times what the U.S. spends on the Small Business Administration (0.8B) and more than half what is spent on the National Science Foundation ($7.0B). Where are the U.S.’s priorities?
I agree that there is little chance for an eminent reduction in partisanship in the U.S. I believe hyper-partisanship in the U.S. will get much worse before, or if, it gets better. I also believe the ongoing negative effects of hyper-partisanship will continue to act as a retrograde force on the U.S. in all respects, e.g. economic, cultural, education, domestic policy, foreign policy, etc.
I agree wholeheartedly that everything, be it the light bulb or women’s suffrage, most often begins with a single person and their drive, will and determination to see it through, often with a group of committed followers.
However, in the case of public policy, I disagree regarding the most effective way to craft, pass and sustain public policy. I do not believe that today’s hyper-partisan environment is conducive to the implementation of public policy that reflects the broad consensus of citizens or that is likely to survive the next election cycle.
Thank you for providing the examples of social policies you believe to be examples of partisan accomplishments. I think they illustrate my point well in that they are all examples from previous centuries. In those times, it was common to have inter-party personal relationships and regular social interaction. Cross aisle cooperation was part-and-parcel of the legislative process.
In that era, the movement of the partisan cycle created a waveform that was of low amplitude and low frequency, meaning the changes from left to right were generally moderate in their extent and the period between changes of extremes was often long. That was what made the public policies you call out as examples possible.
How many of the votes that passed and sustained those policies were due to back-room horse trading, votes of conscience and party-line votes only once it was assured the opposition had enough votes in hand to reach its goals? Only close academic study and deep knowledge of the actions and personalities of the majority and minority leaders, as well as their whips, could enable an answer.
No such mysteries exist today, or any such possibilities.
We live in a new century with a U.S. political partisan waveform that is high amplitude and high frequency, meaning it swings from one ever-more extreme to the other at very short intervals. The U.S. suffers a congress that is run by caucus; party caucuses that require lock-step compliance with ever more extreme ideologues. Success is measured only in opposing the other party and anything it proposes. The only route to implementing public policy is when one party dominates the legislature and the executive branch. However, even in that circumstance, whatever public policy they implement, regardless of its true merit, is used as a partisan lightning rod to rally opposition for the next election. As soon as the opposing party gains some measure of control, any public policy that was the product of the opposition is repealed, gutted or de-funded.
As a society, the U.S. suffers greatly from the gridlock and lack of progress the current hyper-partisan system engenders. While other societies and economies progress, the U.S. idles or slides backwards, in both real and comparative terms. And, as I mentioned earlier, while the partisans enjoy the rush of energy and brief celebrations of victory at each swing of power, left-right-left-right, those who have an external perspective note that there is zero forward progress.
The challenge for the country is twofold. First, as more and more radical ideology is required to stand out and differentiate among the partisan ideologues (read: get media and blog coverage to drive celebrity), along with higher and higher party-required levels of compliance with that ideology, human history illustrates that at some point it will become ideologically impossible to accept any group being in power other than the group that has power. When the partisans get to the extremes of the ideological spectrum, it becomes inconceivable that power could be entrusted to the opposition. When you can’t give up power, you become a totalitarian regime. The U.S. political hyper-partisans are moving very close to, if not already on, the slippery slope that leads directly to the totalitarian regime scenarios that you mentioned.
The second scenario is not violent seizure or illegal retention of power, but conscious choice by the electorate. In previously democratic societies, those totalitarian regimes you refer to are almost always a preferred choice to chaos, which can be the chaos of violence, such as when the Taliban are preferred over bloody anarchy, or a preferred choice to political gridlock and chaotic social policy and economic conditions, such as when the National Socialists were chosen as the salvation of the Weimar Republic.
Partisan ideological purists offer simple solutions to complex, intractable problems. Those simple solutions almost always feature external causality, meaning the blame for any problems lies elsewhere than among the followers of the ideologue. People, especially people under societal stress, very much prefer simple solutions, especially solutions that cast the blame on someone other than the electorate. Thus, in times of societal, economic and cultural crisis, the masses tend to be susceptible to charismatic ideologues who proclaim simple solutions while demonizing others as the cause for all the problems.
Consequently, in almost all previously democratic system cases, it seemed like a really good idea to the people at the time to choose what was known to be or turned out to be a totalitarian regime: they offered the best choice versus chaos or gridlock.
In the U.S.’s current situation, those who support and encourage partisanship support and encourage gridlock, lack of progress and continued deferral of the imminent, societal-scale challenges that the U.S. faces. The closer the U.S. gets to the looming existential threats, the more it will feel like chaos is imminent and that gridlock is unacceptable. That could very well be an inflection point in U.S. political history, a point where a well-funded, media-powered charismatic ideologue, surrounded by uncompromising acolytes and blindly loyal masses, rises to supreme and unquestioned power. Stay tuned.
Something that mitigates the probabilities for that scenario, and a real challenge for the partisans, is that the hyper-partisans only make up about seven percent of the U.S. electorate. As I mentioned, ba…sed on recent polling, just about everybody else thinks the country needs less partisanship. In particular, poll results show that independents, who are currently vacillating every two years between left and right while swinging the elections accordingly, support more bi-partisanship and less hyper-partisanship.
The question is, while it is easy for the hyper-partisans to keep their foot soldiers, true believers and Kool-Aid drinkers enthusiastic about the energy-laced, rapid-fire oscillations from left to right and back again, how do the hyper-partisans keep the other 93 percent of the U.S. electorate from noticing that almost nothing is being done, what is being done is being quickly undone and the existential threats are only growing more ominous by the day?
The race seems to be if the hyper-partisans can create enough perception of chaos to generate a societal consensus that their simple answers to complex, intractable problems seem like a better permanent choice than the bi-annual swing from left to right to left to right.
Given infinite prosperity, infinite energy and infinite resources, the current situation, which profits no one but the hyper-partisans and the people who make and sell political advertising, could go on forever. However, the U.S. is slowly waking up to the realization that there is no more infinite prosperity, no more infinite energy and no more infinite resources. What there is more of are massive, societal-scale challenges that are being ignored by the partisans, apparently in the hopes that when they can no longer be ignored, the electorate will choose a permanent, final solution that features the partisans’ ideology.