The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Are You Red, Blue, or Purple? Just Where Are We Politically as Nation?

There is a marvelous new group starting in the mountains and on the ranch ranges of Idaho that's been initiated by a great friend and well respected colleague. .:: Government by the People -- TheCommonInterest.com ::. They are dedicated to trying to bridge the shrill partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats and help all of us find common ground and opportunities to move on and move forward as a nation in areas that urgently need our attention. They are look across Party lines for the best ideas and the best intentions in everyone. They know that most people are folk of good spirit and good faith who simply want what is best for the country.

There is a lot of evidence that they are on to something potentially big and potentially important. In the midst of the campaign, before the election results were spun as confirmation of a polarized country that is riven by divisions of religion and culture, the New York Times ran an article that challenged whether we truly were as polarized as it has become popular to declare. A former teacher of mine, sociologist Paul DiMaggio has just completed extensive survey work on American culture and his findings show narrowing gaps among different groups of Americans along many cultural issues. Morris Fiorina, a noted political scientist, has just written a book with two colleagues entitled, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. The book argues that across many political issues, in both Red states and Blue states, majorities form around similar positions. And Louis Menand's recent article in the New Yorker about the election pretty much put the kibosh on the idea that this election turned on cultural and moral divisions among the people. He reports that most people who have looked at the numbers say in fact, the War on Terror and Iraq were the crucial issues that swung voters. Perhaps these findings explain that anamolous University of Maryland poll that showed majorities of Republicans would have opposed the war if they knew there were no weapons of mass destruction (further confirmed now that the weapons inspectors have thrown in the towel), would further oppose the war if they knew that the links between Saddam and Al Qaeda were tenuous at best, would oppose Bush's Global warming position, and would disagree with Bush on numerous other things as well including multilateralism.

So if everyone agrees why would we need this group? Because in Washington, the divisions are real and profound. Due to structural and social changes in American politics, the Parties have moved towards extremes and away from the center, hence they are less able to find common ground. House and Senate races are less and less competitive, Party bosses have less power, and money elevates the vocal groups that have it.

The key thread linking most Americans right now is the sense that both Parties are pandering and captured by their extreme wings. The only thing that currently bridges the people's sense of alienation from each Party is the politics of personality because this communictaes beyond ideology and issue. This is where George Bush trumps what the Democrats have so far been able to throw him -- Al Gore and John Kerry. Let's face it, as much as most Democrats despise the man and as often as I find myself screaming "Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!" when I hear him on the radio or TV, most Americans genuinely like the guy and trust him to do what is right. (Samuel Popkin has written importantly in this resepect on how people choose candidates on the basis of personality as a proxy for how that person will react on issues that are not yet central in the discourse but which may come up in the future as important - aka - 9/11.)

The Common Interest and moves like it are really the only move possible (really the move most necessary -- taking on the cast of a categorical imperative) in our current political environment. One thing that seemed clear to me this year was that even if Kerry had won he wouldn't have been able to do anything and that the Republicans, particularly under Delay, wouldn't have given him a moment's peace. Any kind of victory by either side was going to do nothing to assuage the terrible polarization which afflicts us now. As was clear during Clinton's terms, the deep abiding passionate hatred of him and all things Left was profound and implacable. I remember one quote I read in a paper from some young Republican buck saying "Clinton is evil! He is just soooo evil." I know many Dems, myself included, feel the same way about the current White House crew. We somehow have to find a way to get back to the space in which there was some consensus about the basic rules of interaction and the structure of the process -- ideas of fair play and a shared commitment to unite around - exactly - the common interest.

One thing my studies have taught me is that when you become disappointed about the way an organization is functioning you need to look at how the organizational structure conforms to the environment. And what incentives all of this presents to participants. When you do this with regard to the American political process, you see that everything today favors the Fox News, the Tom Delays, the Air Americas, the Michael Moores, The New York Posts of the world. I don't think I know all of the structural reasons why things have gotten to this point but the issue merits a lot of thought. If we can find structral changes -- steps like rules against gerrymandering, campaign finance reform that takes big money and special interests out of the process, mechanisms to help move things again in Washington, then we will make headway in this ares.

Until then, it will be the initiative of groups like the Common Interest that begin the process of bringing us together a little more. In graduate school I took a a course in Social Psychology and I remember the professor discussing situations of severe strife among groups, situations when groups and people hate and scapegoat the other. He told us that such conflicts are always destructive spirals that don't stop until one side unilaterally ceases and extends an olive branch that is honestly seen and taken by the other side. One thing they recently considered in Colorado was giving the vice-chairmanships of legislative committees to Republicans which is truly remarkable when you think about how vituperative the previous Republican group was when they were in the majority here. It would have been a good idea but at the recent opening of the legislative session partisan bickering flared over the election of the Senate President. One positive note was that the Republicans replaced their strident far-right leaders with a more moderate, consensus oriented group.

At this point I just don't see either side extending any kind of olive branch at the Federal level. As Dean's candidacy showed there are just too many people on the left who feel like I do these days and who simply want to destroy the other side. But it's really so much deeper than that. Dems want to roll back what the Republicans have pushed through and Republicans want to continue to roll back what Dems pushed through over 6 decades. And there are many honest disagreements about some fundamental issues that are seen as non negotiable on both sides -- abortion, civil rights, equal rights for gays, guns, taxes and social spending. So given how deep the passions run on these issues I don't see how we get conciliation or reconciliation. One side needs to take the first move and I don't see either side stepping forward. Until then, we need groups like The Common Interest to gather people in enough numbers that the leaders will follow.

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