The Fog of Partisan Politics

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The numbers on preferred party affiliation in the U.S. have changed somewhat in the last 35 years. Republicans stood at 31% in 1970 and still do today. Democrats have fallen from 49% to 34%, a drop of 15 percentage points. The independent category has increased from 19% to 24%, and the category "some other party" has increased from 1% to 11% (Harris Poll.) (These figures fluctuate modestly from one year to another.)

Whatever these preferences, in the 2004 election, 62 million people voted for Bush and 59 million for Kerry. Only about 1.1 million voted for third-party candidates. When election day comes, voters choose a major party.

Voter turnout in presidential elections has for decades fluctuated around 55%. Almost half of eligible voters do not vote.

How many people vote and what party they vote for have not changed much in a long time. Most Americans still have the party habit.

These voting patterns and our history as a nation make the American political system seem very stable. Elections are sometimes divisive and disorderly, but old rulers turn over the reins to new rulers peaceably. Over the past 100 years, the basic system of voting has changed in many respects, such as districting, ballot access, voter registration, and voting age, etc. The basic mechanisms or framework or outward appearance of politics, our Electoral College, our Congress, our Supreme Court, our Presidency, and so on, have not altered much.

Meanwhile vast social, political, and economic changes overshadow changes in the voting system. Today’s hallmarks of federal power, Social Security, Medicare, fiat money, huge debt, militarism, international intervention, regulation, and subsidy are of such a scope that they dwarf their humble beginnings in the distant past. Revolutionary changes in the conditions of living have occurred within a stable voting process and a stable governing framework.

In order to fashion such big changes within the same political system, some things had to give way. Two of them are freedom and the rule of law. Although these are still the nominal processes that Americans support, the reality is very different. Power, money, interest, and politics now decide most issues. We now live with a discrepancy between the political values that Americans pay lip service to and what we experience. There is also a discrepancy between the big political promises that have been made and what Americans now receive or will receive.

Inside this seemingly stable political bubble, where Americans live and breathe, where we work and play, these great changes and their discordance with the political realities are creating a strain. Sooner or later, we will see that bubble dissolve or even burst. Our political levees are just as weak as those in New Orleans. The voting numbers do not show this, because candidates can’t win unless they occupy central ground. But the American State is losing whatever legitimacy it once had. As the State more deeply violates its own Constitution, written and unwritten, as it violates American ideals, it loses allegiance based on shared values of freedom and justice. It has only power and fear to hold it together. Under the surface is widespread disaffection.

The American State has actually been dissolving its own philosophic foundations for many years. Paradoxically, the smaller and less powerful the State was, the more enduring it was. The larger and more powerful it has become, the more vulnerable it is. The trend is toward becoming a mere shell with nothing to it except raw power and the residual allegiances and loyalties of old. Feelings for country, place, region, and people run far stronger than feelings for the American State.

At some point, a shock may occur. A rare event, a giant political earthquake might happen, such as New Hampshire seceding from the Union. Or perhaps over a period of time, a series of shocks will occur whose cumulative effect is to melt what remains of that comfortable political shield. The inability to fund programs like Social Security without draconian measures might do it.

There is probably no highly organized political system and no extensive empire such as ours that has not been shaken to its roots at some point or other, either by a sudden change in the system or by one shock after another that has the same net effect over time.

When this happens, will we be ready for it? Of course not. No people is ever ready. But, believe it or not, I am optimistic. Put this down to a constitutional infirmity of my genes that biases my judgment. I actually believe that a great period of enlightenment, hope, progress, and peace lies ahead of us — but not immediately ahead of us. I do not forecast a new Dark Age. I forecast an Age of Good Sense. Beyond genes, the reason for my optimism is a belief that mankind has at long last come along far enough to benefit more from peace, tolerance, and trade than from war, intolerance, and isolation. More importantly, I believe that most of mankind understands this. I could, of course, be wildly wrong. Even if I am wrong about that, I think it is the case that our political structures are one factor restraining us from getting to an Age of Good Sense. They promote Nonsense and encourage the expression of our lowest impulses. They are basically irrational.

We are not about to be given anything on a silver platter. We have many problems to face to plan for our own reconstruction. One big problem is not seeing the big picture. Many of us fiddle while Rome burns. Not only do many of us ignore the fire, many do not even see the flames or smell the smoke.

I do not count myself as being especially enlightened. I can’t see the big picture either. I grope to make it out, bit by bit. The smoke makes a thick fog. I read, research, think and write only to try to disperse some of that fog.

Where is all this fog coming from? What’s producing the confusion? Some is inescapable and normal. There is surely natural ignorance and limitation. There is surely a great deal of change of fashion and mode of living. But we are beyond these. We are into hapless confusion, disorder, and cacophony. Is this normal? To me, it seems quite illogical. The robins, cardinals and sparrows do not have this affliction. The lowly spider spins a web and quietly waits. Why should we be so different? I look for a source or sources of the excess unpredictability, the surfeit of noise, the glut of disorientation. I do not think it lies in our stars, nor in our nature. We are not fated for inordinate confusion. Two sources of turmoil are our system of rule and our own petty antagonisms.

Paradoxically, the more that the State tries to control and alleviate the natural lives of its citizens, the more disorder it introduces. State housing developments create crime and decay. Bussing creates flight to suburbs. Laws against drugs create an immense prison gulag, crime, and more powerful and dangerous drugs. Wars against rebels create more rebels. Attempts to secure oil make oil less secure. Protective drug laws create fewer protective drugs.

Society is not a machine to be controlled or made efficient. Machines are passive. They can be programmed, sped up and slowed down. Human beings are active and reactive. All attempts to control them forcibly result in the clashing of wills. The resulting frictions lead to adaptive behaviors that the controllers can’t predict and can’t control.

I think we live under bizarre laws, but I’d say the same thing no matter what nation I lived in. I also think it is bizarre that we retain these bizarre laws even when we largely know they are bizarre and oftentimes know how and why they have come about. It’s strange that we often retain these peculiar laws even after discovering the great harm they do to many individuals, or learning that they benefit some at the expense of others. It is curious that our rulers continually add to these outlandish laws and curious that we accept them. It is as if the body politic were paralyzed, or as if we were bound up in cords that we could not untie.

We are not given to know the future. We do not know the present very well, and we often do not understand the past. But we could not survive unless we knew enough to recognize our mistakes and correct them. When we make big mistakes and fail to correct them despite efforts to do so, that is a sure sign that something is wrong. We must be making an even bigger mistake that is holding us back.

In mystic moments I imagine there is a lever which if thrown will alter this situation dramatically. One switch changed from negative to positive will reverse the polarity. I’m hunting for this lever. It’s hidden somewhere behind an expanse of clouds, fog, and mist. It’s concealed behind curtains like the Wizard of Oz. Perhaps it’s buried deeply in a library of law books somewhere. Perhaps it’s obscured by the folds of everyone’s brains. Perhaps there is one neuron inside each of us that requires a flip-flop.

We befog ourselves and are befogged by commentators in many ways. One of our favorite fogging devices is partisan politics. Every debate is filtered through the obscuring lens of partisan politics.

Did Bush blunder by starting the Iraq War? The partisan answer: Not only Bush but also one hundred Democrats also said Saddam was an ogre, so any criticism of the Iraq War is a democrat attack on Bush. The war is therefore not a blunder. Or try this one. Was Bush’s use of an Iraq and al-Qaeda connection a valid reason for going to war? The partisan answer: A majority of Democrats voted for a resolution to use force against Iraq that, in part, referred to "members" of al-Qaeda being in Iraq. Therefore, any criticism of this foundation of war is really a criticism of Bush. Therefore, the Iraq and al-Qaeda connection is a valid reason for going to war. (I owe these examples of fog to Victor Davis Hanson.)

Of course, in both these cases of illogic, the conclusion does not follow. It does not matter whether every member of every party thought the war was a good idea. The question is whether Bush blundered or not in starting it. This cannot be answered without addressing whether or not the war is a blunder. If it is, then both Bush and 100 Democrats erred, although their errors may vary somewhat. Similarly, Bush and Congress may both have used an invalid reason for war by linking Iraq to al-Qaeda. The fact that a majority of Democrats voted for such language is irrelevant to the substance of the issue.

We lift ourselves to a higher level of human interaction by seeing through the debates of partisan politics that tend to obscure the forest for the trees. Debating in terms of partisan politics is an ingrained habit that plays into the hands of our rulers of both parties. Some of this is understandable. Our rulers have so much power that the foibles of the man in office can make a considerable difference to our history. But we often argue over personalities or minor variations among programs that are not substantially different. Meanwhile, basic policies go on and on, often unnoticed, although administered by different faces and parties.

The Iraq War today is a product of several administrations of both parties and a product of stubborn ideas that go back much longer than that. The Social Security program was initiated, supported, and expanded by several generations of politicians of all stripes. Today’s Republican platform is, in many respects, indistinguishable from yesterday’s Democrat platform. Nixon declared that we were all Keynesians now, and how many in both parties are not now covert greens or do not support the United Nations?

If we do not question the basic assumptions of policies, then we implicitly accept them.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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