Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Partisanship and Political Satire

Anne Applebaum, apparently desperate to meet a deadline, has tossed out a word salad of conflicting thoughts about politics and parody. She is depressed that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are staging a giant party in Washington D.C., and is even more depressed that people are planning to attend:
I don't know about you, but my heart sank when I read about Jon Stewart's Million Moderate March, planned for the Mall next weekend. My heart sank further when I learned that liberal groups, lacking any better ideas, have decided to take this endeavor seriously. It's bad enough that the only way to drum up enthusiasm for a "Rally to Restore Sanity" is to make it into a television comedian's joke. But it's far worse that the "moderates" in attendance will have been bused in by Arianna Huffington and organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
No, wait a minute, Anne. When a rally starts as a "television comedian's joke" it may be possible to turn it into something more serious, but it's a bit late to profess concern that it might "turn into" the very thing it has been since its inception. As for the attention-hound Arianna Huffington busing people in, or... PETA? (That's really her best, and only, second example of people "turning" the comedy event into a comedy event?) So what?
This is how words, and then ideas, vanish from our political lexicon: Whatever connotations it once had, the word "moderate" has now come to mean "liberal" or even "left-wing" in American politics. It has been a long time since "moderate" Republicans were regarded as important, centrist assets by their party: Nowadays, they are far more likely to be regarded as closet lefties and potential traitors.
Seriously, by throwing what is pitched as a bipartisan comedic event, named to parody various marches that preceded it, Applebaum is concerned that Stewart is going to forever ruin the word "moderate", the way Reagan and his successors marginalized the term "liberal"? Is it that she imagines a world in which the only political descriptor remaining in use is "conservative"? She believes that the Republican Party's marginalization of its "moderates" - something that long preceded the planned comedic event, is the consequence of the event? Has it even occurred to her that Stewart's use of the term "moderates" is a reaction to the marginalization of moderates that she so deplores? The moderates "taking back America"? The joke seems pretty obvious to me.
"Moderate" Democrats, meanwhile, no longer exist: In their place, we have "conservative Democrats." Nobody pays attention to them either -- unless, suddenly, one of them threatens to vote against health-care reform. And then he is vilified.
More stuff and nonsense. There are plenty of moderate Democrats. In fact the majority of Democrats are moderate Democrats. (Does Applebaum believe Russ Feingold is the norm?) A great many "conservative Democrats" are aptly named, because they were fielded as part of an effort to bring into the party seats that were traditionally Republican, and the people holding those seats hold many or most of the political views associated with the Republican Party.

It's similar to the long-extinct species, the Southern Democrat. "Blue dogs" are an endangered species not because the party hasn't been accommodating, but because the present sentiment of the moderate Republicans who voted them into office is to vote for (drum roll, please) Republican candidates. We speak of "conservative Democrats" as "conservative Democrats because (as surprising as this may be) they're considerably more conservative than the centrists. That's what happens when you massively expand your party - you bring in people who lean toward the other end of the political spectrum.

As for the "vilification" of "conservative Democrats" who "threaten[] to vote against health-care reform", who did she have in mind? Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu, who wanted to extort huge financial concessions to their states? Bart Stupak, whose concerns had nothing to do with the bill itself and everything to do with limiting women's access to abortion. Joe Lieberman, who after endorsing the expansion of Medicare suddenly changed his mind and threatened to withdraw support if a Medicare expansion were included in the final bill? Seriously, if you want vilification, look at the real and implied threats directed at Republicans who suggested that they might be convinced to sign on to a reform bill.
There is no lack of interesting people in the political center. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- one of the few popular incumbents in the country -- has not only declared himself a centrist but has also launched a campaign of support for other centrists. He flies around the country endorsing both Democrats and Republicans who he thinks show the ability to compromise and have the courage to depart from party orthodoxy on issues such as gun control (he is in favor) or more stringent financial regulation (he is against).
Okay, so we have lots of interesting people in the political center, such as Michael Bloomberg and... and... anybody? Bloomberg being a billionaire Democrat who changed party affiliations to run for Mayor of New York and demonstrates "centrism" by opposing financial industry reform and advocating for gun control laws? Sorry, but picking two issues, one of which is more associated with the political right (financial industry deregulation) and the other of which as been all-but-abandoned by the Democratic party even if popular with some on the fringe (gun control) does not demonstrate "centrism" - but it does reflect what you might expect from a Mayor of New York City who, even overlooking his personal ties to the financial industry, is looking out for the future of his city.
He nearly lost me when he inexplicably endorsed Harry Reid, but never mind.
Wait, why "never mind"? Harry Reid is a Nevada politician who has close ties to the financial industry, who has gone to the wall for the state's hotel and casino industry. Did Bloomberg "almost lose" Applebaum because Reid's support of "gun control" appears to be pretty much limited to wanting background checks for firearms sales at gun shows? Seriously, Anne, tell us what your gripe is.
Others are trying, usually behind the scenes, to find solutions to problems that divide liberals and conservatives bitterly.
For her example of this, Applebaum doesn't draw examples from the center, but speaks of people who hold strong political views coming together under the auspices of their "think tanks" to create joint reports. As with Bloomberg, her evidence for this "trend" is a single example, the joint production of "a report called 'Post-Partisan Power'",
which calls for the removal of wasteful subsidies and advocates investments designed to make "new clean energy sources" commercially viable. Just as important, though, is the point this group made by working together. In their introduction, they note that bipartisanship has helped create economic growth. And not only the distant past: Welfare reform was passed thanks to both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.
Ah yes, the good old "bipartisan days" when Newt Gingrich stewed over having to use the back entrance to Air Force One, shut down government and whined that Clinton's welfare reform proposals represented his stealing Republican ideas. Ah, the bipartisan harmony....

As I see it, to be meaningful bipartisanship has to tackle a large, difficult issue. Welfare reform represents an easy issue because, for the most part, Americans don't care for welfare programs, are easily led to believe that they're too generous, and will support cuts even when times are good. Clinton defused an issue that the Republican Party had been pushing hard for years (think Ronald Reagan and his Cadillac-driving "Welfare Queen") at no real risk to his own electoral future. That's Applebaum's vision of bipartisanship at its best? It seems more like "politics as usual."
Bipartisanship is, of course, the source of plenty of disastrous ideas itself. Sometimes it produces worst-of-all-possible-worlds types of legislation, like those energy bills that subsidize gas, oil, wind, nuclear, coal, biofuels, hydrogen and anything else that might keep a swing state happy.
Are we truly reducing the concept of "bipartisanship" to its most basic definition - anything that is supported by at least one member of the opposition party is "bipartisan"? I had thought Applebaum was trying to advance a more sophisticated notion of "bipartisanship", involving the two parties working together to solve difficult problems. Passing around enough money to gather enough votes on both sides of the aisle to pass a bill may, in a nominal sense, represent "bipartisanship", but it really seems that we're again talking about "politics as usual".
Sometimes it produces agreements that are so centrist that one or the other party eventually rejects them. That's what happened to the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform, a bill I'm sure John McCain wishes he'd never laid eyes on.
Bipartisanship can produce legislation so centrist that it becomes unacceptable to one of the sides that negotiated the bill? Does that even make sense? As Applebaum has to know, the problem with the bill that she identified is not that it is "too centrist", whatever that would mean. It's that it made any concessions at all - that was too much for the Republican base to swallow, particularly in this era of anti-immigrant rhetoric and popular fear (fanned and exploited by Republican politicians and pundits) resulting from a severe recession and ongoing economic malaise.

Applebaum lectures that without "cross-party compromise... our system doesn't work." She purports,
That's what "checks and balances" means. In American politics, if you don't want to cooperate with your political opponents -- if you prefer to scorn them, shun them or call them names -- that means that you don't, in fact, want to get anything done. Moderates often achieve less than they could. But extremists achieve nothing at all.
First, no, that's not what "checks and balances" means. "Checks and balances" refers to separation of powers - the division of government into three co-equal branches, structured in such a way to keep any one branch from becoming too powerful. The House and Senate can be viewed as institutions within Congress that serve to check and balance each other, but nothing in the concept of "checks and balances" requires that there even be political parties, much less that they cooperate.

Second, although it may be true that extremism is rarely a short-term approach to legislative victory, over the longer term ideas that started out as unambiguously "extreme" have become accepted by a majority and incorporated into our system of laws and jurisprudence. Abolish slavery? Grant women the right to vote? Prohibit alcohol? Forbid state-sponsored racial discrimination? Gender discrimination? Decriminalize homosexuality? Mainstream those with physical and developmental disorders? Permit the organization of labor? It's easy to look at today's society and see "nothing extreme", but you don't have to go back very far to find strong and often violent resistance to what we now take for granted.

And no, there was never an era in which the political parties held hands and sang songs of unity. Dirty politics, name-calling, and everything else Applebaum deplores existed before our nation was founded, and is often more obvious in parliamentary systems where you are more likely encounter opposition heckling on the floor of parliament. Does Applebaum believe more has been accomplished when politicians have been outwardly meek, focused on calming their supporters, emphasized the importance of working with the opposition, and pressed for compromise on everything? (I thought she didn't like Harry Reid.)

This, Applebaum lectures us "is why this Jon Stewart rally is such a gloomy development" - I mean the very idea that people might get together in a public square and engage in a lighthearted celebration of their centrism. What could be more destructive to Applebaum's brand of centrism - the approach to politics in which there are no absolutes, no lines that can't be crossed, and in which the best measure of legislation is not its quality but whether it earned "Ayes" from both sides of the aisle?

One of the many things Applebaum misses, and she seems to be trying to break a record for "most whiffs in a single column", is that to the extent that there are people who fit her narrowly constrained concept of "centrist" - people who scorn strong political ideology, will compromise on everything, and will celebrate that compromise above all else... Applebaum, Broder, and... I'm sure there's a third somewhere... they don't organize. Nobody organizes them - what's the point of holding rally for people who don't have an ideology? And they don't organize themselves because they have no issues around which they might coalesce. Yes, as right-wing critics of the Stewart/Colbert rallies point out, the primary appeal of these rallies is likely to be to politically active people whose politics are from the center (not Applebaum's bland center - one that is comprised of people whose political beliefs don't fit neatly under a party's tent and who, for example, may lean toward the Republicans on business issues but toward the Dems on social issues) and left-of-center - but so what? How, in Applebaum's sea of non sequiturs, does that become "blackly humorous" verging on "tragic"? And for somebody so devoted to "centrism", why is Applebaum's concern limited to entertainment-oriented rallies that are nominally centrist, when she doesn't appear to care about the rabid rallies led by demagogues like Glenn Beck?

Were Applebaum a more thoughtful person she might recognize that this nation does face serious issues, that there are serious ideological differences in how those issues might be approached, and that partisanship is not a bad word. What is in many ways a bad word is "bipartisanship" as used in the manner of David Broder, in which the term is reduced to "politicians setting aside their differences and agreeing with my agenda." Applebaum's notion of solutions to problems as being "too centrist" only serves to highlight the sloppiness of her thinking - again, it is the partisans who keep such legislation from passing, not the centrists. And "centrist" solutions to non-pressing, non-controversial issues does not illustrate how "centrism" is effective - it highlights how much easier it is to address the little things that don't excite the voters than it is to address the big, difficult issues that raise hackles on both sides of the aisle.


  1. Applebaum truly believes that party politics represents "checks and balances"? I must have missed the part of the Constitution that enshrines the party system.

    If you view party-based political conflict as integral to the separation of powers, how can you justify simultaneously arguing that it's a bad thing and that we must set it aside in favor of some form of centrism?

  2. Applebaum has it half-right on the vilification of Bart Stupak, if that's one of the people she was talking about. He was vilified by the left when he was holding the healthcare reform bill hostage as part of his anti-choice agenda. No surprise there, given that he was simultaneously tearing down both healthcare reform and reproductive freedoms, two "big deal" issues for most Democrats.

    But the reason he chose not to seek reelection was that, after he finally voted to support the bill, he was vilified by the political right. It was obvious he would not win reelection in his conservative district. It was not the left that pushed him out.