Category Archives: Government

The Roots of Poisonous Partisanship

There has always been political partisanship in this country, but we seem to be at a stage where it has become so poisonous that politicians refuse to work with each other because many believe that the politicians on the other side of the political divide are untrustworthy, unpatriotic, and un willing to make policy choices that actually help the nation.

I’’ve heard a great deal of talk about how to deal with this issue. There is a group called “No Labels” that is trying to bring politicians together to solve problems without concern to their partisan labels. There are also groups pushing a “civility oath” for politicians to sign pledging to deal with issues in a civil manner.
I think these ideas are nice, (actually I think they are “cute” but I don’t want to be dismissive and add to the tone of negativity and hostility), but I don’t think they’ll succeed because they don’t address the real root cause of the problem. The issue isn’t just that politicians are being disagreeable. The issue is that they have fundamentally different views of how the world works, and what the role of government should be within that world. Simply being nice is not going to bridge that divide.

But the other, deeper problem is that both sides have gone from believing that the other side is simply presenting a different policy choice to believing that the other side is choosing policies that are designed to harm the nation.

I don’t think we’ll ever truly solve the issue of partisanship because people will always have very different views on how things—economic, political, social—work. But I think we can deal with the issue of poisonous partisanship and minimize it if we understand where it comes from and what it means.

So what are the causes of our current poisonous partisanship?

There are a number of causes, and I will discuss them briefly. Each probably warrants more analysis, but I have neither the time nor inclination to do that now. But I will note that they are cumulative. One in isolation may not be a real problem, but in combination we reach critical mass and the pile melts down.

The Two Party System. The two party system creates a false dichotomy and the silly idea that every issue and problem falls neatly into the liberal v. conservative, or Democratic v. Republican paradigm. It also creates the silly idea that for every problem there is a Democratic solution and a Republican solution. This is obviously simplistic, but this false dichotomy creates the belief for some people that if there is a right solution and a wrong solution: if there is a Democratic solution and a Republican solution, and if I’m a Republican and I think Republicans are right, then the Republican solution must be right, which must mean that the Democratic solution must be wrong.

So the two party system creates the idea that policy choices are choices between good and bad, and between right and wrong.

Political Shenanigans. Both parties engage in political shenanigans that only deepen the partisan divide. Perhaps the best example is partisan gerrymandering, where state level politicians manipulate political districts to ensure politically safe districts. Often, when Republicans control the process, they are willing to gerrymander a few districts to create safe Democratic districts while at the same time gerrymandering many more conservative leaning districts to produce many more safe Republican districts. And, of course, in those states where the Democrats control the state house they do the same thing.

Kentucky is unique because Democrats control the state House and Republicans control the state Senate. And so we have Democrats in the house gerrymander House districts and Republicans gerrymander Senate districts.

The result of these ideologically divided districts is that the real battles are in the primaries, between moderates and hardliners. And in those districts that are very conservative, or very liberal, you get very conservative or liberal representatives. And the result is that the current Congress, according to some studies, is the most ideologically rigid Congress in modern history. The other result is that these politicians don’t have to worry about talking to, or trying to appeal to, moderates or partisans on the other side, because they don’t have to rely on them for votes. And so the result is that many politicians have almost no experience dealing with partisans from the other party, which means that they don’t know, understand, or take seriously the views and policy positions of the other party. And this only exacerbates the partisan spiral.

The Adversarial Culture. We have a culture that is focused on, and rewards conflict. As mentioned, our political system is based on a head to head fight over ideas, policies, and candidates. We are also a culture that loves sports: we love competition and the head to head battles that sports represent. Even in those sports that are not based on head to head competition—like running or golf—we tend to focus on (or at least the media focuses on) the leader and nearest rival, so that the competition is presented as a head to head battle.

We revere the free market, and competition (which is a form of conflict) is the heart and soul of the free market. We like consumer choice and like the idea that through this choice consumers pick economic winners, and cast economic losers to the side.

Finally, we have an “adversarial” legal system that is based on the idea that we can determine truth an intellectual and evidentiary battle between litigants. The result of all of this is that we have a culture that reveres conflict. And, unfortunately, we transfer this belief in the value of conflict to the public policy debate.

The end result is that policy debates become epic battles. So what should be, for example, a discussion of how to limit gun violence becomes a battle between those who want gun control and those who champion individual rights.

The Trivializing Media. We have a popular culture and a news media that likes drama over substance. The most popular movies tend to be action and conflict oriented. Occasionally deep and thoughtful movies do well at the box office, but that is the exception and not the rule. And often those movies are couched in conflict, as the recent movie Lincoln, which focused on the conflict over passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The news media finds it much easier to present every problem as if it were a dramatic battle between two opposing warriors, than to delve into the complexities of problems, issues and policies. Drama has become the sum and substance of our culture, and our news media’s approach to just about everything. The ever popular “how does that make you feel” question is about human angst—that is drama—and not about trying to understand an issue. And this interest in, or bias towards, drama fits in ever so nicely with our two party system. So our two party system creates a trivial duality, and the news media runs with it.

This duality is increasingly fed by the more partisan of the news outlets, FoxNews on the right, and MSNBC on the left. Each depends on the simplistic duality, and profits from it.

Conservative Rage. There are some segments of the Republican Party and the conservative movement that have come to view liberals as a force of evil. I discuss this in much more detail in my posts called “The Roots of Conservative Rage.”

This conservative rage means that some conservatives look at every issue, every political battle, as if it were an existential struggle for the very survival of America. Every political or cultural battle is a struggle between good and evil. Every issue becomes a crisis. Every vote is existential.

Liberal Response. I wish I could say that Liberals have taken the high ground in responding to the way some conservatives act. I wish I could, but I can’t.
Far too many Democrats respond to the Republican pettiness by being petty themselves. There was, for example, a web site devoted to “dogs against Romney” because Romney once put his dog in a crate on the roof of the car when the family traveled on vacation. I don’t know what to make of Romney’s action, but what kind of dufus actually spends time to create an anti-Romney web site based on that?

I find the general tone of Republican politics nasty and silly, but I can usually ignore it. When Democrats react in kind, I’m truly embarrassed.

The history of the last thirty years has also produced an unattractive smugness among some liberals. They look at Republican claims and behavior over that period and see little but failure. They see Republican claiming that tax cuts will increase revenue and shrink the deficit, and then see deficits balloon after each tax cut. They hear Republicans claim that any tax increase will kill the economy, and then note that the economy grew substantially after Clinton raised taxes, and stagnated after Bush cut taxes. They hear Republicans talk about the need for a robust national defense and an aggressive foreign policy, and then look at the disaster that ensued when President George W. Bush put those policies into effect in Iraq. They hear Republicans say such insightful things as “We will be welcomed as liberators” in response to the invasion of Iraq, and see that the opposite was true. For many liberals the Bush administration was the zenith of conservatism—the fulfillment of every conservative desire. And it was a complete disaster. And in the last five years it appears, more and more, that the truth is nearly the exact opposite of what Republicans claim. (Pre-election polling is but the clearest example.)

The result is that many Democrats have come to believe that the Republican Party has become a party of buffoons. But unfortunately it is also more than that. Some liberals have come to view conservatives in the same way that some conservatives view liberals. Some liberals look at the disaster of the Bush administration, and the insistence of many Republican politicians that the solution to our current problems are the exact same policies that failed for Bush, and they believe that conservatives are endorsing these policies not because they think they will improve things, but because they actually want to make things worse. They believe that, for example, Senator Mitch McConnell was willing to enact legislation that would harm the economy in an attempt to unseat President Obama. And so some liberals view conservatives as nefarious.

The end result is that both parties have come to believe that the other party has cracked. Republicans believe that Democrats want to introduce social legislation that will turn this nation into Sodom and Gomorrah. Democrats believe that Republicans want to destroy the government and turn the nation into a naive free market paradise where the riches go to the swiftest, and the devil takes the hindmost.

Now, I ask you, how are we supposed to get these guys to work together?

Do you really think a civility pledge will fix this?

Liberals versus Conservatives. As I noted in a separate post titled “The Roots of Conservative Rage” many conservatives see themselves as a firewall against liberal policies tha they view as harmful to the nation.

To paint this with a metaphor, conservatives tend to see themselves as defensive linemen lined up against the liberal offense, trying to stop the latest hail-Mary pass into the end zone (to approve gay marriage or ban assault rifles or whatever outrage conservatives are aligned against). In some ways this makes conservatives focus on liberals in a strange and unhealthy way. Sometimes, if you watch Hannity, or listen to Rush Limbaugh, you would think that conservatives are obsessed with liberals. And you would be right.

But liberals don’t tend to view the world this way. They see problems and then look for solutions. Sometimes those solutions involve chucking tradition, but in many cases they don’t. So liberals don’t see themselves as aligned against conservatives. Liberals don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on conservatives. (They do spend some time, and MSNBC seems to be strangely obsessed. But if you look at a great deal of the more thoughtful liberal press – magazines like Harpers or the Atlantic – they focus more on issues than conservative politicians.)

Unfortunately this liberal response only further enrages conservatives. Liberal indifference bugs conservatives. I think they would like it better if more liberals were as focused on them as they are on liberals. But liberals are not, and this gets under their skin, and makes it more difficult for the two parties to work together.

The Partisan Echo Chamber. Driving much of this partisanship (and driving the nation into the ground) is an increasingly partisan media. FoxNews and talk radio dominate the right, and liberal imitators (like MSNBC) are a pale reflection. But both operated within the simplistic worldview that there are only two sides, and the other side is crazy. The pervasiveness and repetition, particularly on the right, helps drive the message home (and drive rational people crazy).

So what is the solution? I’ll address some ideas in a post titled “An Antidote to Partisan Poison.” Stay tuned.

The Destructive Duality

The American government is frozen because the two parties are completely at loggerheads. Neither is willing to work with the other or willing to compromise in any way. The two party completely distrust each other. Each party seems convinced that the other is nefarious, engaged in politics and championing policies that are harmful to the nation.

In order to address the nation’s problems we first need to figure out a way to get our politics unstuck. But in order to do that, we need to understand how it got stuck in the first place. How did politics become so divisive?

First, I should note that there have always been times when politics was nasty. Often the periods of extreme nastiness corresponded to eras when the nation felt it was at a crossroads. The first truly nasty election was in 1800, when the first big battle over the direction of the government, between the John Adams and the Federalists, who believed in a strong and activist national government, and Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, who believed that government should occur mostly at the state level, and that the national government should leave the states largely alone. Throughout history the most raucous politics occurred during periods when there were serious differences in the views of how government should work.

(Curiously politics tends to be less bitter and divisive when the nation faces real existential crises, like during wartime.)

We are clearly in the midst of such a period, as some Republicans try to dismantle government, and as both parties try to figure out how to deal with the future. But one new element seems to be a visceral suspicion of the motives of the other party. I call this the destructive duality. It is a duality because we have two parties fighting it out, and it has become destructive because both largely refuse to work with the other.

The destructive duality starts with the fact that we have two – and only two – major political parties. So every political issue because a head to head fight between Democrats and Republicans. Then you add to that our cultural fascination with competition and conflict. Our elections are “first past the post” and winner-take-all, elections, and most campaigns are fought as one candidate against another. Most often this is Democrats versus Republicans, and occasionally it is liberals versus conservative, but mostly today, despite the rhetoric, it is moderates versus conservatives. And so most political discussions are framed as Democrats versus Republicans, and issues get framed as having a Democratic solution and a Republican solution. Our cultural fascination with conflict and a belief in the value of competition ads a nasty element, and makes elections frantic and mean.

The next component involves the way people think about their beliefs. Most people tend to believe that their ideas are right. That is why they believe them. Most political parties, their candidates, and their partisans, start with the idea that their political ideas are right. They believe that of all the ideas out there, of all the possible options, theirs is the best, it is the most correct, it is, in a word, right. So Democrats think that their ideas, their policy choices, the programs they endorse, create, fund, and support, and the best. These, Democrats believe, are the best solution to the problem, they are good for the nation, and good for the people. Republicans, likewise, think that their ideas, policies, programs, etc., are right. That makes sense. But over the years each side has also come to believe that the other side is wrong. This is largely a product of the dominance of our two major parties. Because we have only two major parties, we discus political ideas in the framework of only two possible positions, the Democratic position and the Republican position. The reality is, of course, that there are any number of possible ideas, views, policies, positions, programs, etc., but that tends to be ignored, and we (meaning the media) present most every idea as if it is a choice between two, and only two, positions. And those two positions are the Democratic position and the Republican position. And since each side is convinced that their ideas are right, the only logical conclusion is that the other side’s ideas are wrong.

Far too often this simplistic view is then taken to the next step. If an idea is wrong, isn’t it, almost by definition harmful? If the right solution is good, doesn’t that mean that the wrong solution is bad? In the real world it doesn’t because there are many possible solutions. But in the warped world of American politics, where there are only two possible alternatives, if one is right the other must be wrong, and if one is good then the other must be bad. And if an idea is bad, doesn’t that mean, almost by definition, that it is harmful? Again, this is almost logically follows. So, in the warped world of American politics, each party has come to believe that the other party isn’t just presenting an alternate solution to a problem, it is actually presenting a solution that is wrong and harmful. There is one more step: what kind of person actively supports, endorses, and advocates for policies that are wrong and harmful? The answer is almost inescapable. A bad person promotes ideas (policies, programs, etc.) that are wrong, bad and harmful.

If Republicans, for example, are convinced that tax cuts will always help the economy, the corollary is also probably true, no tax cuts may hurt the economy, and tax increases will certainly harm the economy. And so Republicans become convinced that Democratic politicians who are preventing tax cuts, or proposing tax increases, are actually – and purposefully – trying to harm the economy. This is but one example, but many Republicans have come to believe that most Democrats are prompting policies that will harm the nation.

For many Republicans it is so obvious as to be painful that welfare harms the recipients, and abortion harms the nation. It is clear beyond words that liberal policies have harmed the nation in the past, and liberals continue to promote similar policies. Women’s liberation destroyed the family, and now liberals are advocating for gay marriage. Liberals have pushed policies that have hurt the country, and they keep doing it. (Liberals, of course disagree.) What kind of political party advocates policies that are bad, that are wrong, and that are harmful to the nation? Why a party that is bad and destructive. And how should you react to a party that is promoting things that will harm the nation? The answer is obvious, you stop them at all costs.

If you listen to the rhetoric of some of the more extreme politicians, or partisan commentators, you hear this message loud and clear. Listen to Rep. Louis Gomert of Texas, or conservative commentators like Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter. They are clearly convinced that Democrats are a danger to the nation. Many Republicans believe this, and so refuse to work with Democrats on anything in Congress.

This view causes people to distrust not only the actions of their opponents, but also their motives. In this view a bad person is capable of anything, willing to lie, cheat or steal to achieve their nefarious ends. Even when they seem to be acting responsibly, there is always the possibility that they are trying to dupe you. So every word and deed is mistrusted.

I use Republicans as an example, but the reality is that there are Democrats who view Republicans in the same light. I think there are more conservatives who think this way than liberals, but there is no doubt that some extremely partisan Democrats feel this way. I know because I’ve worked with them. But again, I think it is more prevalent among conservatives. There are a couple of reasons it is more prevalent among conservatives. The first reason is that conservatives tend to view recent history as the story of the fall from grace, and that fall was hand delivered by liberals. Liberals don’t view the modern world in the same light. On the whole they think that the modern world is a pretty good place, and they certainly don’t blame conservatives for every ill facing the nation. Conservatives feel like liberals have destroyed their world (see the Roots of Conservative Rage) and they are not happy about it. The second reason is that conservative media feeds this narrative. Conservatives have hours upon hours of commentators blasting away at liberals. They have talk radio, with dozens of prominent hosts. They also have FoxNews, and a host of television commentators. Liberals, on the other hand, have never had successful radio programs (although there are a few out there) but they do have MSNBC.

This idea – that the other side is bad, evil, and must be stopped – has always been around to one degree or another. But the problem today is that this has become the dominant view. One reason for this is the rise of partisan news outlets, first conservative talk radio, then FoxNews, and now MSNBC. Demonization is their stock in trade. Each focuses on the idea that those with different views are not merely people with different ideas, but people with bad and potentially destructive ideas.

The other reason is far more troubling, and that is that the ostensibly “non-partisan” news media has effectively lost the ability to think rationally. The “main stream media” present almost every issue as if it were a battle between two sides, when the reality is that most issues don’t break down that way. Take, as but one example, the issue of global climate change. More often than not the MSM (Sarah Palin’s Lame-Stream Media) will have a story and present a climate scientist, and then a conservative (politician, economist, commentator, etc.) for “balance.” They want to present balance even when there is no disagreement. The do this, in part because conflict sells. So if you can present an idea as a simple, head to head conflict, you can get people riled up, and get ratings. The news no longer (or rarely) looks at nuance, they rarely dig deep into ideas and try to present them as complex issues. And they virtually never present more than two possible solutions to any problem. So the news media is deeply complicit it the national descent into triviality and stupidity.

And so we have the destructive duality. Democrats present their ideas without wavering, and Republicans do the same. Each presents the other as stupid at best, and criminal at worst. Each side is convinced that the other is wrong, their ideas bad, and their policies dangerous. And so they refuse to budge. How can you compromise with a party that is hell bent on destroying the nation? You can’t.

There are many recent examples that prove the point. Take the debate over setting the maximum rate for student loans. The Democratic and Republican positions barely differed, yet it took months of acrimony to reach an agreement.

So how do we deal with this destructive duality? The easiest first step is to understand it, and see through it. Parse the partisan rhetoric, and laugh at the silly duality. Once you understand it, almost every political statement becomes amusing. Mitch McConnell says basically two things: liberals are evil, and conservatives are here to save the world. Both are absurd caricatures.

Another step, if you are in politics, is to avoid it when you can. Treat your opponent as someone with a different view of how to solve a problem, not as someone with a bad or destructive view. Present your ideas as one choice among many, and treat your opponent’s ideas seriously.

But these two steps only get you so far. The real problem is that our “culture” treats every issue in a simplistic way, and as a destructive duality. Virtually every issue is presented as liberal versus conservative, or Democratic versus Republican. And this has become destructive because it has impacted our ability to think critically. Real issues are more complex. There are many causes and many possible solutions. By ignoring this, the destructive duality has impacted our ability to reason, and to solve problems.

We need to figure out a way to get past this. We need to figure out a way to convince the public, the media, and the major political parties, that every issue is not a battle between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans. We need more than this simplistic and destructive duality.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to allow for the participation of viable third parties. If the debate in Congress is over a Republican proposal, a Democratic proposal, and a Tea Party (or a Green Party) alternative, it will be obvious that the choice is not between left and right, and hence not a choice between right and wrong, or good and bad, but a choice between policy alternatives. In my view the only way to break the destructive duality is to bring third (and fourth and fifth) parties into our political system. This is why I’ve developed a proposal to allow multi-seat districts. It will allow more parties, and more ideas, in to politics. It will destroy the destructive duality and break the back of political gridlock.

What Works

We have roughly two hundred years of experience with modern capitalistic market based economies, and there are roughly 200 countries on earth, each obviously with an economy, and most with some variation of a modern capitalistic market based economy. From that history and that range of practical experience we have a pretty good idea of what works, and what doesn’t work.
Here are the main components of a successful society with a successful economy.

First, science is the foundation of modern society, and the most successful economies are highly dependent upon science. It drives technological advances that create new industries. The industrial revolution began when James Watt successfully applied Boyle’s law, and since then scientific advances have eventually led to technological changes, and these changes altered society and the economy. Throughout history, those societies that are most open to scientific advances, and most adept at applying them to new technologies, have thrived.

Second, the most scientifically advanced societies, and the societies with the most successful economies, are the most “open,” open to new ideas and new people. The history of the “modern” world shows that this is true. The Renaissance, which began the transformation of Europe from the Dark Ages to the Modern world, started in the port cities of Italy in the 14th Century. Traders from those ports were traveling to the Arabian world, and were bringing back new people and new ideas, not to mention reintroducing old ideas to Europe. (Of course they had also brought the bubonic plague a century or so earlier, but I suppose you have to take the good with the bad.)

There are two major components to this idea of openness. The first is that open societies have governments that are responsive to the citizens of the nation. Unfortunately the U.S. government has grown sclerotic and is often as much a hindrance to society and the economy as a benefit. That is why I am proposing a new system to make the nation more democratic, and give is a government that is more responsive to the needs of the people. The second component of social openness is that societies that discriminate stagnate, and societies that are open and tolerant are the most scientifically, culturally and economically successful. Tolerance is a key component of a successful economy.

Third, throughout history and across geography, the most successful economies are based on the free market, but have a degree of government oversight to prevent excesses, inefficiencies and extremes. Modern conservatives believe that we should have a hands-off, laissez-faire economy, with no government control or oversight. But they can’t point to a single example of where this theory has been successfully put into practice. History teaches that unregulated markets tend to excess and instability, but it also teaches that too much government control can stifle innovation and economic growth. The goal is to achieve the proper balance between the openness of free markets, but with some degree of government oversight to prevent harm to citizens.

Based on this brief overview of what makes a successful economy, I will focus on four sound bites in my campaign, and all four relate to the economy:

1. Science is the foundation of the modern economy. To grow the economy we must support science.

2. Tolerance is a key component of a successful economy.

3. Government Gridlock hurts the nation, and also harms the economy.

4. We need Goldilocks regulation: not too much, nor too little, but just the right amount.