What’s Wrong with Party Politics?

A lot of what’s wrong with politics was on display in yesterday’s Washington Post profile of Representative Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee. I think the article itself tended to flatter Cole, but it also highlighted some of the central problems with the art at which he excels.

Foremost among these is the focus on winning rather than on good policy. A friend and former California political staffer once used a horsemanship analogy to express this: It used to be commonly understood that a good leader gets the horse to go where it ought to, but now we’ve reduced the art of political leadership to the much less impressive feat of simply managing to stay in the saddle no matter where the horse wanders. That is the background assumption that makes it possible for the Post to write this:

Cole’s ascension raises a tough question for a party that’s still tied to that unpopular president and that unpopular war: Do Republicans need to change their policies, or their politics? Can they win back the House by distancing themselves from a lame-duck president and burnishing their image, or do they need a more fundamental ideological shift?

Now let me acknowledge the obvious, which is that the losing candidate’s policies and convictions don’t matter very much. That’s why I don’t particulary condemn the narrow vote-producing skills that seasoned political operatives use to advertise their candidates; they are necessary in their way, just like the skills people use to sell shampoo. Let me also acknowledge that political convictions are inherently bounded by the circumstances of a given time and place, and must therefore move with history. (Lewis Gould’s book Grand Old Party does a good job of showing how today’s two major parties have traded positions on various issues over the last 150 years.)

But to ask whether Republicans (or Democrats) can win as they are or whether they need to change ideologies is to imply that winning is the first priority, and the issues on which one wins are at best secondary. This impoverished understanding of politics would be no problem at all if it were confined to campaign consultants (someone has to focus on the “winning” part), and it might be only a small problem even if it were shared by the vast majority of elected officials. What seems different to me now, what strikes me as dangerous, and what the tone of most political discussion seems to demonstrate, is that this understanding is now common among most of the “party faithful” (a phrase that now begs the question, “faithful to what?”). As long as we’re all trying to figure out who’s best, the best are likely to win. Once too many of us shift our focus to who’s most “electable,” the connection between victory and merit is severed. The best person for the job may surprise us sometimes, but there’s just no telling what the most electable person for the job will do, particularly on days like September 12, 2001.

The article shines an unflattering light on some other troubling features of modern electoral politics as well, such as gerrymandered districts (“‘I think we’ve hit our floor,’ says Cole” — what a remarkable thing to say), the overriding importance of fundraising, and the continuing misuse of the word “conservative” to describe radicals and extremists of various stripes who just happen to call themselves Republican. It’s not a cheerful read, but I fear it is quite informative.


4 Responses to “What’s Wrong with Party Politics?”

  1. Rob Gittings Says:

    I hate to be the first to comment on such a literate post and I hate even more to foist the political thinkings of a CPA on such a thoughtful group. Aw, what the heck.

    What may be the real problem with our political system is the uncomfortable fact that as a people we tend to agree on way too much. When I think back to the issues that drove the “critical realignments” (as the political scientists would say), my mind goes to weighty topics such as the balancing of powers between the states and the federal government, slavery (OK, so the first two are kinda related) and whether the federal government has the power to tax income. I’m not sure that there are the kind of sharp divisions around fundamental issues (the kind of issues that go to the kind of country and people we want to be) in play now. So we all spend time talking about the “wedge” issues (abortion, for example) because, well, somebody’s got to get elected and there has to be some differences upon which to make the choice.

    That’s not to say that some of the issues that on first view seem to be “simple” wedge issues (gay marriage, for example, or any facet of the subject of race) aren’t really fundamental issues that deserve the kind of thoughtful and considered discussion that Mark finds lacking in our candidates.

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    Rob, I found your comment thought-provoking, and since you’re a CPA I numbered the thoughts it provoked. I think we may be noticing two facets of the same problem.

    1. My first reaction is that I think there are indeed some fundamental issues that divide people today and could lead to realignment of political affiliations. The events of 9/11 have raised pretty important questions about the relationship of the individual to the state (e.g., what do we think about domestic spying, or indefinite detention without criminal charges?), the relationship of the executive branch to the rest of the government (e.g., can a president exercise “commander-in-chief” powers domestically, even in ways contrary to statute, by claiming that an external and/or internal threat is really a state of undeclared war?), and the relationship of the US to the rest of the world (e.g., are we really prepared to project American power for its own sake, to prolong our so-called “unipolar moment”?). I think these compare favorably in importance with slavery and the income tax; in fact, they seem to me uncomfortably similar to the issues faced by Rome in the 1st century B.C.

    2. But my second reaction is that Reaction 1 is only true if one believes politics is about right and wrong. If one believes politics is primarily about winning, then the Rome-like issues I think we face are really not very important except insofar as they are useful in producing electoral success – which means they are not inherently more important than any other issue. If passing a minimum wage law that hardly applies to anyone motivates more people to vote than retaining liberties enjoyed since Magna Carta (see section 39 here), then minimum wage legislation is more important. This would explain why Democrats, who are suddenly quite animated in defense of individual liberty, separation of powers, and that foreign policy of humility that Governor Bush promised us in 2000, were not actually worth a tinker’s cuss on any of these issues until grass-roots organizations demonstrated that they had fund-raising and vote-getting potential. [Note – You and I don’t know many tinkers, but I gather from the idiom that we’re supposed to have some background cultural knowledge that they cuss a lot, the way banshees wail and racehorses piss. But I digress.]

    3. These apparently contradictory reactions can be reconciled — and your comment reconciled with my post — if things are in fact as bad as I originally suggested. Let’s suppose that large majorities of voters identify primarily with a party, and want that party to win, and tend to consult the party platform in order to decide what they think about things instead of starting with personal conviction and working the rest out from that end. If that’s the case, then we will in fact wind up with spirited disagreements that will fail to produce significant party realignments. Realignment will not occur, not because the issues are unimportant but because they will not be perceived to be as important as party affiliation. In support of this possibility, I offer the example of abortion: It is surely one of the most divisive issues on the political map, it is quite fundamental in terms of individual dignity and the proper relationship of state to individual, and it has been strongly identified with the Republican Party for a few decades, yet Republicans currently seem perfectly willing to toss it over if they think Rudy has the best chance of winning.

    4. I’m reminded of that wonderful C.S. Lewis essay, “Men Without Chests,” in his book The Abolition of Man, and I would quote it here except that now I find I have lent my copy of that book to someone who probably didn’t read it and never got around to returning it because he was afraid I would ask what he thought about it. But you can get the gist of it here. To paraphrase Lewis, perhaps it is not that modern politicians care about power or perks any more than the founders or the ancients; perhaps it is just that we notice it more because they don’t seem to care about anything else.

  3. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Wow, there’s a lot here. Let me limit myself to two comments.

    1. Mark’s allusion to 1st century BC Rome is instructive. By the time of the birth of Julius Ceaser (100 BC) the Roman republic had completely (when they said complete they meant it, they had not only burned Carthage to the ground they sowed salt in the fields so the city could never rise again) defeated Carthage and almost all of their other external enemies, largely resolved the centuries old tensions between plebian and patrician and subjugated (although it was always a worry) the huge slave population. By all rights, the first century BC should have been one of the most stable and productive periods in the long history of ancient Rome. However, as it turned out, it was just the opposite. I think the echos to the situation prevailing at the immediate end of the Cold War and the chaos in which we, quite shockingly, find ourselves are fairly chilling.

    A series of generals, Marius, Sulla, Cina, Pompey the Great and finally Julius Ceaser formented civil war throughout the nascent Empire, competing for prestige and power and what they called their dignitas. Even Cicero and Cato, ostensibly the protectors of the “ways of the ancestors”, were, in my view, largely concerned with protecting the privileges and monopoly on power enjoyed by the Senatorial nobility, rather than questions of good governance. In short, it was a time where the leaders of the Roman republic placed the largest political question facing their polity, namely, how can a republican city state govern a multiethnic and multinational empire in the too hard box and focused instead on internicene and petty battles relevant only to what George Will would call the “political classes”. Sound familiar?

    The results of tabling governance in favor of power were a century of anarchy, where the regular army was wasted in civil wars “of choice” and the rise of an autocracy that governed Rome, increasingly reducing ancient political rights over time, for a further 500 years. It would appear that the cost of ignoring the duties of citizenship in favor of narrow partisan preeminence are quite high.

    2. Now for a history lesson a little closer to home. In my view, one of the principal outcomes of the success of the Goldwater-Reagan “conservative revolution” has been an increase in ideaological governence in America. This has signalled a trend toward a Europeanization of American politics and a gradual abandonment of a more practical poltical philosophy that heretofore had dominated American government.

    Think about it, western expansion, controlling the wealth generated by an industrialized America, the Great Depression, racial inequality, and the fight against totalitarian ideaologies were the principle political challenges faced by America since the Civil War. Congress has changed hands many times in that 150 years, administrations have come and gone and yet, I think it is fair to say that each of these major issues, have been, at least at the federal level, addressed in a largely practical and remarkably consistent, as contrasted with an ideaological, fashion. The emphasis has been on “competence” and “getting the job done” as oppossed to staffing government with “true believers”. Obviously, over so long a time period, this is a gross historical generalization, but in the main I think it bears out. There are many examples of Republican presidents turning to Democrats and vice versa to draw on special expertise and competence in order to solve problems. This frequency would be inconceivable in Europe where the shadow government remains ever ready to pounce on the slip ups of the actual government.

    We abandon this sensible, may I say “American” practicality at our peril. No less a prognosticator than DeToqueville identified it as the secret of our success.

  4. Timothy Peach Says:

    I think I agree with Rob’s point above…. we have a fixed amount of energy for political argument, and it’s going to get used up regardless of the importance of the issues we disagree on.

    I guess it’s good news that things are going well enough for us to get bogged down on certain dumb things (e.g. gay marriage, flag burning, the precise manner in which we must punish illegal aliens before we stop denegrating them and make them learn English).

    As I’ve made painfully obvious, I do not consider abortion to be a bogus “wedge” issue, as respect for human life is about the most important thing I can imagine caring and arguing about. Giuliani, for example, is off my list now. I could have held my nose if he had just come out and said, “The truth is, I really don’t care about the issue, just like Bush, Sr. didn’t. Can we move on?” But his milquetoast equivocation (“abortion [for fun, fill in lots of other atrocities and see how this sounds with them, too] is monstrous but I want my neighbor to be able to do it if she wants to”) is revolting to me. It’s either murder, or it isn’t. Pick one, and stick to it.

    Politics is about the gathering and wielding of power. In a media-driven democracy — especially an Uncle Screwtape style democracy like the one we have where one is required to validate stupid, uninformed opinions side-by-side with the thoughtful ones — you cannot do this without awkward collections of positions, and lots of ugly compromises. Purists get stomped — look at Nader, and perhaps oddly, Mondale.

    Where is Bob Casey Sr. when we really need him? There are still plenty of pro-life Democrats in Pennsylvania.

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