Thursday, March 03, 2016

The wisdom of political insecurity

A couple of my friends have pointed me to an excellent article by David Brooks. Now I might not care much for his economics, but this article is not about economics. It's about politics. Brooks has noticed something peculiar about American politics. Some people in power would prefer to abandon politics altogether and rule by fiat.

Here is what I think is the nugget of the article:
The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.
Get that? Disappointment is normal, and it's part of the deal with politics. Compare that to authoritarianism which is a bit more than disappointing, and suddenly, politics is not so bad.

Further on in that article, Brooks points out that politics is great for maintaining peace in society until one side or another, or even both, decide that there can be no compromises anymore. My way or the highway, they say. Brooks points to the Tea Party in Congress as one such element that refuses to compromise. They're currently engaged in a scorched earth strategy to acquire and maintain unquestioned power in Congress and in some ways it seems to be working.

Brooks is right about his assessment of how politics works. And in so many words, he cautions us that an unwillingness to compromise leads to authoritarianism. A casual review of the composition of that Tea Party faction in Congress can give us some idea of who we're dealing with. One of the leaders of that faction is presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

Cruz epitomizes the religious right. He represents a safe district in his home state of Texas. To put this in perspective, he can be as obnoxious as he wants to be and not worry about being voted out. His beliefs are buttressed by his religious convictions, so in his mind, his opinions and political positions are, for lack of a better expression, "unassailable". He believes without question that he is right and seems unwilling to consider an alternative view. But since he believes that his positions are supported by what his imagination considers to be "God" and that God is on his side, he doesn't need to compromise. He is willing to shut down the government to make his point clear.

In the late 1960's, Barry Goldwater could see this coming a mile away:
"Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them."
But it gets only better for men like Cruz. He has positioned himself as the perfect pawn for billionaires to custom order their agenda for Congress. Cruz loves the money primary and has profited handsomely from it. Like many conservatives, he claim that his convictions justify his unreasonable positions. He can claim to love the free market and that liberals simply want the government to pick winners and losers. He couldn't be more wrong:
Most people define the central point of dispute between liberals and conservatives as being that liberals want the government to intervene to bring about outcomes that they consider fair, while conservatives want to leave things to the market. This is not true. Conservatives actually rely on the government all the time, most importantly in structuring the market in ways that ensure that income will flow upwards. The framing that "conservatives like the market while liberals like the government" puts liberals in the position of seeming to want to tax the winners to help the losers.
This "loser liberalism" is bad policy and horrible politics. The efforts of liberals would be much better spent on battles over the structure of markets so that they don't redistribute income upwards.
--- Dean Baker, economist and co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research and author of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive
The unwillingness to compromise is what creates gridlock in Congress. The unwillingness to compromise is supported by safe and gerrymandered seats. A safe seats is merely an invitation for a campaign contribution, and boy, do those contributions come. Combine that with a man filled with conviction of any kind that he is right, and that conviction comes from God, then any idea of compromise goes out the window and down the street.

What Brooks has done is characterize the symptom with amazing accuracy without identifying the cause. The cause, as Larry Lessig, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have noted, is big money in politics.

Take out the big money in politics and suddenly, uncertainty appears. When politicians are uncertain, especially about where their campaign money is coming from, listening to their constituencies becomes a bit more important. Well, maybe listening to their constituents becomes the most important thing.

What would happen if members of Congress had to depend on the people alone? What would happen if they had to spend their time listening to ordinary people, instead of spending more than a third of their time dialing for dollars?

By then, compromise might not seem like such a bad idea. It's that uncertainty that makes men and women amenable to compromise. Even when they're in a position of power.
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