Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My, How The World of Politics Has Changed

While conceding that there has never been "a golden age when Americans basked in bipartisan harmony", Robert Samuelson is convinced that things are different now than in the good old days:
First, politicians depend increasingly on their activist "bases" for votes, money and job security (read: no primary challenger).
As opposed to "the good old days" when politicians obtained their money and votes from people who opposed their platforms and supported their rivals? It might be possible to interpret Samuelson's statement as suggesting that in "the good old days" politicians didn't face primary challenges from their "base" if they catered to other interest groups. But he continues,
But activist agendas are well to the left or right of center. So when politicians pander to their bases, they often offend the center. In one poll, 70 percent of registered voters said Republicans' positions were too conservative at least some of the time; 76 percent likewise thought Democratic positions often "too liberal."
Which recent primary challenges does Samuelson believe came about because politicians pandered to their bases and offended the center? When in U.S. political history has a candidate been free from concern about a primary challenge when he spurned his base?
Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to "save the planet," "protect the unborn," "reclaim the Constitution." When goals become moral imperatives, there's no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they're immoral. They're cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three.
Seriously... we have more ideological partisanship than we did during the period of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798? The Civil War era? Reconstruction? The Civil Rights era? The Red Scare and McCarthyism? The post-Watergate era? The Clinton impeachment?

Also, I recognize that Samuelson has thrown in "Save the Planet" to implicate the political left in his concern about "idealistic ideologues", but where can I find a Democratic candidate who is using that or something similar as a campaign slogan? I'll grant him that there are candidates who speak of "protecting the unborn" and some who speak along the lines of "reclaiming the Constitution", but the abortion issue appears to be on the back burner, and the concept of reclaiming the Constitution isn't necessarily a bad thing or presented as a "moral imperative". While some of the arguments offered are overstated or premised in a misapprehension of the Constitution, politicians should want our government to follow its foundational document. Also, some of the huge issues our nation has had to confront, including slavery, civil rights, and prohibition and its repeal, have involved no small amount of self-righteous moralizing.

I suspect that what Samuelson is really concerned about is not so much that we're working with moral imperatives - some issues are genuine moral imperatives - but that he senses that we're obsessing over trivialities and lending those trivial issues import far beyond what they deserve. (This may be more credit than Samuelson deserves, given that to the extent that the concerns are premised on fact and science there are few issues more important than "saving the planet", but again I think Samuelson was pulling that one out, and implying overstatement of threats, to avoid making it look like he was criticizing the political right.) That's not so much "something new" as it is a consequence of living a comfortable, affluent lifestyle - obsessing over trivial issues is a luxury we've been unable to afford throughout most of our nation's history. You can see how quickly priorities change when scary things happen - wars, economic recessions, etc. - it's no big surprise that trade and immigration are presently hot topics, as they were during the recession of the early 1980's.
Third, cable television and the Internet impose entertainment values on politics. Constant chatter reigns. Conflict and shock language prevail; analysis is boring.
This is, in some ways, a difference. Yes, there are many new channels through which people can gain information about the issues of the day. Yes, on television and on the radio there's an incredible amount of mindless chatter, and a lot of what passes for analysis is at best shallow and at worst a cacaphony of talking heads trying to see who can yell the loudest. But I'm not sure that's worse than a more "genteel" era during which a single newspaper owner could control much or all of the news accessible to the average person, skewing political coverage, analysis and endorsements in accord with his own political views.
Finally, politicians overpromise. The federal budget has run deficits in all but five years since 1961. The main reason: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise spending and cut taxes. To obscure their own expediency, both parties blame the other.
Wait a minute - parties are pandering to their bases and polarizing the nation while simultaneously engaging in bipartisan compromise on budget and tax issues? Samuelson tells us that "The center feels frustrated that the bases' disproportionate power impedes action on long-standing problems (budgets, immigration, energy)" - so the bases of both the Republican and Democratic parties want lower taxes and higher deficits, while the poor, long-suffering "center" yearns for balanced budgets? I'm sorry, but there's something wrong with that picture.

Samuelson also argues that "Liberal and conservative bases feel abused because their agendas are rarely entirely enacted." The more accurate word would be "never" and that, also, is nothing new. So I guess the argument is that politicians pander to their bases in order to avoid primary challenges by failing to keep their promises to their bases, and simultaneously alienate "the center" which has no greater concern than a balanced budget, but somehow they keep getting voted back into office.... Peculiar, indeed.

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