Saturday, November 6, 2010

A spirit of partisanship

Well, we've just endured another season of political campaigns and made it out alive. As predicted, the Republicans picked up a lot of seats in Congress, enough seats in the House for a majority, and enough Senate seats to take the majority away from the Democrats, leaving neither party with a majority. Everyone is left wondering what will happen in the next two years. Will Obama be able to get anything done with a Republican Congress? Will the Republicans overturn Obamacare? Oh, the possibilities.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that it would just be so great if both parties could set aside their differences and just work together toward the common good. If only "politics as usual" could take a break so we can deal with the "real" issues.

In my humble opinion, this is completely wrong.

It's difficult sometimes to remember that it is actually the spirit of competition that works to our favor. When corporations have to compete with one another, consumers win. Get a monopoly and the price of goods goes up. In general, when powerful people work together, they work very effectively at protecting the interests of powerful people. They are, of course, very good at persuading the rest of us that what's in their best interest is in ours as well; but what kind of Americans would we be if we actually bought that?

Think about what you're asking, America. You're asking a bunch of politicians in Washington to work together to solve our problems. The assumption behind that is that our problems must be solved by those higher than we are. In other words, it would appear that we've come to depend on the coercive powers of the State to solve all of our crises. This is bad enough on its own; but it's even worse given that, as many of us believe, the State itself has been perhaps the largest contributor to the troubles we face, particularly the economic crisis (and not as a result of lack of cooperation between parties, but rather because of the common approach to government shared by both parties). From my point of view, the safest possible place to be as an ordinary citizen of this nation is to have nothing but good old dog-eat-dog political Darwinism. I figure, the more powerful people compete, the safer are the interests of private citizens.

And don't tell me this doesn't appeal to you, America, you who have gotten hooked on reality shows like Survivor. That's right, George W. Bush; you are the weakest link--goodbye. Yes, Democrats, we have voted you of the island. It's better than reality TV--it's actual reality.

If anything, we need more political parties, hence more competition. Republicans and Democrats just aren't that fundamentally different from one another, and I fear there's a systemic problem causing that. We may need to seriously consider some new changes to our Constitution, in order to restructure the nature of elections so that multiple parties can be represented in our legislature. As it is, there is far too high a cost of entry into the political process. That's because every election is winner-take-all. If you invest a ton of resources into a campaign, you get virtually no return on it unless you win. It's logical for one challenger to challenge an incumbent, but two challengers? Then both of them run the risk of splitting the vote, and suddenly the risk isn't as reasonable anymore. From a basic theoretical point of view, the winner-take-all system must invariably lead to a political duopoly such as we have always had in the United States. In the current state of things, that's a really bad thing.

The deeper reason why I'm against a spirit of bipartisanship in Washington is not simply that competition is better, but rather that serious political issues are immensely complicated. A spirit of bipartisanship carries with it the presumption that we've basically got all the serious stuff figured out, and we just need to work together to work it all out. This is precisely not the case, which is why we need competition between parties. Real problems don't get solved just because a bunch of people with good intentions sit down and talk cordially about them. The real world is full of such complexity that no solution should ever be taken as complete. We are humans; we are bound to get things wrong. There needs to be a spirit of competition, if only to keep one another in check.

We can also hope that a spirit of competition will produce new ideas. It wasn't until the Democrats had just about rammed their own health care policy through that the Republicans finally made known their own plan for health care reform. Too little, too late, of course. Perhaps, had there been even more competition--more parties with more to lose should they fail to perform--better solutions would have been proposed much sooner. Competition creates progress in so many facets of American life, from science to business to entertainment, that it hardly seems far-fetched to suggest that the same ought to be true in the case of government.

I understand, of course, why it is that people hate the spirit of competition among politicians. We hate the attack ads we see on TV and on the web, and we hate how this poisons our own political conversations and makes them uncivil. I will not deny that human beings are not meant to live in such anger toward one another as politics often ignites. But consider the alternative. Suppose every political ad made us feel good about the state of American politics, and suppose gradually everyone came to be optimistic about our government and all it does for us. This is the very strategy of totalitarian States, which seek to control their citizens through propaganda. Caught up in a spirit of togetherness, we would gradually come to overlook heinous crimes committed by our beloved State. We already know that the American government is guilty of many things; I would rather we stay suspicious than be lulled to sleep by a spirit of unity.

When I imagine the possibilities, frankly I am quite glad I live in a country that makes me cynical about politics. I'm grateful to live in a culture that doesn't know an honest politician. It is always better, of course, for Americans to be more civil, not less, and it is always good to affirm what it is that unites us. But overconfidence in our own abilities to resolve political issues and too much faith in the benefits of the State are both constant dangers to freedom. That is why, however we may long for more civility and more unity, we must accept that the competitive nature of politics which we must endure is not too high a price to pay for freedom.

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