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Hullabaloo


Thursday, April 05, 2012

 
Partisanship IS democracy

by David Atkins

Timm Herdt, journalist for the Ventura County Star, writes a paean to centrism that perfectly epitomizes the flawed thinking of the church of High Broderism, of which so many journalists are devotees:

Much has been written about San Diego Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher in the week since he announced he was leaving the Republican Party and becoming an independent. But a great deal of it has missed the point.

Critics of the California GOP have used Fletcher's defection as an excuse to pile on their complaints that the party has become intolerant of even modest dissent from party orthodoxy. Defenders of the state party have decried it as sour grapes from a candidate who lost the GOP endorsement in his race for mayor of San Diego.

There is some validity in both those points of view.

But when I watch Fletcher's YouTube video announcing his decision, the line that jumps out makes no mention of the word "Republican."

Rather, his core message comes across in this statement: "I'm leaving partisan politics. I'm leaving behind a system that is completely dysfunctional."

Fletcher wasn't so much rejecting Republicans as he was denouncing the state of American politics.

Fletcher is an ideal messenger to deliver that statement. He is a former Marine Corps officer who fought in Iraq. That means he comes from a background in which people work together to accomplish a common mission, with little or no regard for other agendas.

Politics, of course, doesn't work that way these days.

Partisan agendas come first, even if that excludes any possibility of working toward a common mission of serving the public good.

Where does one even start with this? Perhaps with the incredible notion that democracy should somehow function like the military? Herdt claims that "politics doesn't work that way these days." Was there ever a time at which it did function like the military, with everyone on the same page toward a common goal?

Journalists like Herdt and all those who worship at the Broderist altar seem to believe that there are commonsense solutions to every problem, if only the little hyperpartisan children would simply stop flinging food at each other and get down to the business of adopting said solutions. They believe that the political parties are a self-interested scar on the system that get in the way of productive problem-solving, and that the American people simply want politicians who get together and compromise free from partisan bickering. And to be fair, poll after poll does show that most Americans prefer an end to the constant partisan warfare.

But to believe this requires overlooking the fact that the parties are, in fact, a reflection of popular will. The partisan divide is a reflection of the fact that there are two very different value systems in this country. About half of this country believes that access to healthcare is a human right, and that everyone should pay into the system to ensure that no one is left behind. The other half believes that sick people should die in the street if they didn't make enough money to pay a corporation for health insurance. One half of this country believes that working people should be adequately compensated for the work they do, regardless of what "market forces" might dictate; the other half believes that profit, and only profit, should dictate people's standards of living. One half of this country believes that people should be able to control their own sexuality; the other half believes that self-appointed preachers and priests should dictate it for them. One half of this country believes that climate change is real and that we should be rapidly developing alternatives to oil rather than bombing other countries to steal their resources; the other half believes that scientists are a self-interested cabal who are making it all up, that we should build oil rigs off our coastlines and bomb Muslims into submission until they deliver up their sweet crude to the world market.

These are very stark and very real differences. It's tempting and oh-so-inspirational to declare that there is no left and right, no red and blue, but just one America. Democrats and Republicans alike trot out this tired line, but it's not true. Our divided politics are a reflection of our divided nation, and most of us are actually partisans. Those of us who claim to be in the middle usually aren't, either: so-called "moderates" tend to be partisans of one side on some issues, and partisans of the other on others (say, anti-abortion economic progressives, or hardcore libertarians like many of the progressives who support Ron Paul.)

This is what democracy is made of, particularly in a country like the U.S. without a parliamentary system to fracture two political parties into several effective units. Partisanship is democracy. Consider the case of Colorado Springs recently highlighted in This American Life. The town refused to increase taxes in a recession, and chose to force residents to pay for their own street lights and park cleanups. That in turn led more affluent sections of the city to pay for services directly--at higher cost than their taxes would have been for the same--while the less affluent sections suffered. They binged on privatizing as many city services as they could, which didn't save them any money, but did satisfy their worldview:

Overall, the city's budget for parks is about $12 million now, a lot smaller than it was at its height. But that's mostly because the parks department is doing less. They've closed swimming pools and laid off community center employees. They're replacing fewer playgrounds and fences and bridges. And Roland, for his part? He's not going back to the parks this summer. He hurt his back.

What I learned, though, from talking to the people in Colorado Springs is that for a lot of them these calculations don't really matter. They don't care if privatizing actually saves the government money, so long as the government is doing less.

City councilwoman Jan Martin says she hears this all the time. That it's become a matter of faith in the city that private is better. And she tells us a story. In the dark days, after the tax measure was defeated, city council was having another meeting about slashing government.

Jan Martin: And a gentleman came up to me and actually thanked me for the adopt a street light program. He had just written a check to the city for $300 to turn all the street lights back on in his neighborhood. And I did remind him that for $200 if he had supported the tax initiative, we could have had not only streetlights, but parks and firemen and swimming pools and community centers. That by combining our resources, we as a community can actually accomplish more than we as individuals.

Robert Smith: And he said?

Jan Martin: He said he would never support a tax increase.

Robert Smith: So for him it wasn't the money. He was willing to pay more to turn on the street lights than to pay for all city services.

Jan Martin: That's right. And it's because of a total lack in trust of local government to spend those services, which was part of Steve Bartolin's letter. That prevailing sense that government won't take care of our money, that brings somebody to the conclusion that, I'll take care of mine. You go figure out how to take care of yours, because we don't trust government to do it for us.

See, your average resident of Colorado Springs is willing to pay more money for worse services while letting his poorer neighbors do without street lights or clean parks--just as long as that money stays in the hands of private corporations rather than the nasty government.

There is no "centrist" policy solution that will ever work to satisfy your average resident of a progressive city, and your average Colorado Springs resident. We might as well be living on separate planets. Insofar as we must share a unified set of national policies, one of us is going to win, and the other is going to lose. We will be forever at war with one another, and that's precisely as it should be. There's no splitting the difference there--and even if there were, it would be bad public policy. The gentleman from Colorado Springs and I have two entirely separate views of how the world works, what government's place in that world is, and how morality itself should be defined in context.

And that's fine. That's democracy. There's nothing that says we have to agree, or that we have to like each other. Let the gentleman from Colorado Springs assemble his arguments, and let me assemble mine. All I ask is that his corporate buddies not be allowed to overwhelm my voice in a megaphone made of money, and that each side have its opportunity to be heard--but then, that too is its own set of arguments in a democracy.

But let's stop pretending that centrist technocrats have the answers for what ails this nation, if only that pesky thing known as democracy would stop getting in the way. In fact, the centrist technocrats tend to come up with the very worst policies.

If the worshippers at the High Broderist altar were more honest, they would admit that insofar as partisanship has worsened in this country, it's an entirely one-sided affair. The President himself made this case quite effectively the other day. As I said in the comments section to Mr. Herdt's article:

Mr. Herdt assumes that partisanship is getting in the way of solving problems. On the contrary.

The right wing has been shifting further and further to the right in this country, to the point that it would be unrecognizable to Republicans of Eisenhower's day. The tax rate on America's wealthiest was 91% in the 1950s. Richard Nixon founded the EPA. Ronald Reagan raised taxes ten times. It was the Heritage Foundation that came up with Obamacare in the early nineties (when Romney passed it in Massachusetts, it was a conservative idea to preserve the private health insurance companies.)

Bipartisanship and centrist legislation, meanwhile, has a horrible track record in the modern era. NAFTA was a bipartisan law beloved by centrists. So was the legislation that killed Glass-Steagall and deregulated the banks, allowing them to gamble away the nation's economy. The AUMF to invade Iraq was also very bipartisan and favored by centrists. It was centrists who watered down the Affordable Care Act; but for Joe Lieberman, Medicare would be available to anyone over 50 today, allowing for lower involuntary unemployment and lower healthcare costs overall. Centrists don't solve problems. Centrists CREATE problems.

I understand if a number of Republicans who would have been staunch conservatives 30 years ago feel that their party has lurched so far to the right that they don't fit in anymore. But put the blame where it belongs: on the conservative movement that has wholly embraced the sociopathic ideology of Ayn Rand. Stop blaming "partisanship." The Democrats have moved a lot farther to the right than we were 30 years ago, and it still hasn't helped. Predictably, it has actually hurt the middle class to be so accommodating to rightwing extremism.

I suspect that journalists like Mr. Herdt actually know this to be true, but don't dare admit it lest they be tarred with an "unserious" partisan brush. Part of the doctrine of the church of Broder is that balance be revered as a higher good than truth, which can often be nakedly partisan. But I would hope that even the acolytes of Broderism hold a modicum of respect for democracy and the very different sets of values held by Americans of different political leanings, instead of pretending that partisanship is a silly, ugly game played by children too selfish to allow their betters to get down to the real business of governance by military-style fiat.


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