Saturday, January 28, 2012

Politics as team sport

We've been forced to endure a lot of invective to the tune that we are now more divided than ever. This is dubious, insofar as the division within a nation is a difficult thing to quantify. In any event, it seems to presuppose that the two parties to the division have radically different views which render compromise impossible. And the paucity of government action at the federal level--no budget for two and a half years, just continuing resolutions to make sure the State doesn't shut down--would seem to give credence to this theory. Yet when it comes to Congress, one should be careful about confusing cowardice for principle. Our representatives are reluctant to do anything which might lessen their chances of reelection. So punting has become the pastime of Washington.

To the contrary, I think the division stems from an essential agreement about the way government is run. This sounds paradoxical, but it should not be surprising that vehemence and vitriol tend to increase as difference diminishes. Partisan politics is like sports: one roots for one's team and against the other. Yet it is clear that the much vaunted difference between the teams dissipates rather quickly once a new team wins the electoral game. Bush II was supposed to slash government, but he gave us No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and deficits as far as the eye could see. Obama was supposed to overturn those Bush policies liberals found so troublesome. But instead of reversing the Patriot Act, he expanded its powers under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. True, the war in Iraq sort of ended, albeit after three years. But with our soldiers still mired in the region--many of them in Kuwait--it's hardly unthinkable that we shall find ourselves obligated to go to war in Iraq for a third time in as many decades. Moreover, Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan, and launched a few more besides.

If Obama governs like Bush, and Bush like Obama, it clearly doesn't matter who runs the country: we shall continue spending far more than we can afford, adding to the debt, and starting more foolish wars that are neither affordable nor advisable. Disgusted withdrawal is a sensible option, but it's one many are unlikely to take because of the ingrained views both sides share about voting: that it somehow matters and that it is the way responsible and civilized people work out their conflicts. This is rank nonsense, but it's not especially pernicious in and of itself: voters tend to be engaged citizens, which renders them valuable outside the electoral process. Where it becomes pernicious is in the degradation of our national discourse. With no actual differences between the way the parties govern, differences must be invented. So Obama is a secret Muslim communist, and Newt Romney will turn out pregnant women and minorities to die in the streets should he obtain power. Absurdities, all.

This same nonsense has manifested itself in the search for the Republican nominee to oppose Obama. Having passed over the only candidate who has presented a plan to reduce our deficit within a single term--because he has dared suggest that the military wastes money and thus should see its budget cut, and because he doesn't pine to start a war with Iran--the GOP finds itself confronted with a demagogue and a charlatan: Newt Romney. Both candidates have previously staked out positions contrary to those they now espouse, which is to say that both are unprincipled moderates who will now say almost anything to get elected. The difference then, is one of style, not of substance. The primary process has devolved into teens squabbling over whether Team Edward is better than Team Jacob.

(I've gone link happy in this post, but I'll refrain from linking to any specific examples of the asinine arguments over whether Romney or Gingrich is the true conservative. Find a piece that takes a position, and the comment thread will brim over with opposition. The short answer, of course, is that neither candidate will do anything to reduce Federal spending, but don't think that will prevent Republicans from bickering like school children over the matter.)

The most interesting aspect of the right's new found love of Newt is that it is actually a manifestation of politics as a team sport. If Obama supports something, it must be bad. No thinking necessary. Similarly, if establishment Republicans--who are seen as complicit, but are still reliably reelected by the rank and file--and the media oppose Gingrich, that must mean they fear him, and that must make him good. Yet sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy. Comprehending this has proven a bit difficult for the base, hence the otherwise inexplicable support for the consummate Washington insider.

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