Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Donkey Kong

I have to say I was happy when the Democrats took over the House and Senate in November. But now I'm not so sure, especially given Speaker Pelosi's plan to steamroll the House Republicans the same way they steamrolled the Dems over the course of the past twelve years.

Sure, the steamrolling is for things I agree with, such as a higher minimum wage, renegotiating Medicare prescription drug prices, and lobbying ethics reform (though Pelosi's package, in my mind, doesn't go far enough). But this leads to that age-old question: do the ends justify the means? I don't think they do. Especially not because part of the reason the Democrats got this windfall is because people were sick of the partisan steamrolling that went on in Washington in lieu of reasoned cross-aisle debate. So we should say shame on you, Pelosi, for falling victim to the desire for revenge... right?

But really, when you're a true believer like so many representatives are, how could you justify not steamrolling the other side? If you're certain that the ideas you're pushing are good and right and just... well, it's not like you're killing or stealing to get what you want. You're just using the rules to your advantage. It's underhanded, but it's not immoral or even unethical. Is it?

Perhaps, then, congressional Democrats (and Republicans for that matter) should be chastised for their moral certitude - a failing that we generally associate with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. This, again, is a tale as old as time - those who oppose with the most fervor are in the gravest danger of becoming that which they oppose.

But how can we blame Democrats for having moral certitude when that's apparently what the people want? Elections nowadays are won by those who play the part of true believer. Look at the 2004 Presidential election - John Kerry approached issues thoughtfully and carefully and was pilloried as a "flip-flopper" for his troubles. The criticism most often leveled against Democrats (until '06) is that they don't have "ideals" and that they were "unprincipled" - which basically just means that they were a party that was open to discussion and debate of many viewpoints. Time after time, this openness got them taken to the woodshed. People say they're sick of partisanship, yet they still gobble up voraciously the old lie that the pragmatists, the compromisers, and the debaters are "unprincipled."

My point is this - I'm done saying someone is "unprincipled" or a sellout or whatever because they choose to compromise. I have ideals and I'll fight for them - we all do. But at the end of the day, we need someone who is willing to cut a deal and move forward. The Battle of Evermore needs not occur beneath the Capitol dome. So the shame is really on us - note the first-person pronoun here - for our combative words, our good-versus-evil outlook on too many issues, and our unwillingness to accept compromise that encourages the apocalypolitics that we witness today.

(Matt Novak, if you're out there and reading this, I'd like your opinion as to how a politics of debate and compromise can catch on when moral certitude is so damn appealing.)


Mike said...

Moral certitude is certainly a large contributing factor to the seeming inability of politicians to compromise. However, I think the appeal of instant gratification and a lack of foresight are also onuses (oni?) on the backs of political debate. When people know what's "right", they want things to be that way immediately, and seem unwilling to take baby steps to reach the end goal. Let's say you want automobile emissions standards to go up. You demand a 50% reduction; the opponent party is willing to give you 10. I imagine the debate can go back and forth, but in the end, that smaller reduction is better than none at all. You can push for 10 more the next time. This is probably a tired, obvious point so I'll stop. To offer another more personal example: I think marijuana should be 100% legal (a fact I harp on so much people probably mistake me for a stoner). Would I be more likely to vote for the candidate who agrees with me completely, or a candidate who wants to make it legal to carry, say, up to an ounce? I like to think I would recognize the capacity for negotiation in the latter, but more likely I would go with the former. (Admittedly, since the former tends to have other nutjob ideas like abolition of the Senate, I would still ultimately vote for the latter.) Point being, in terms of voting, people are by and large more likely to go with the candidate who possesses the same moral certitude as they do. Once they are in office, however, compromise is in order, but then the next election rolls around and such compromise is seen as moral certitude and people start ripping out their hair. The key is to reconcile this somewhat paradoxical nature of our national politics.

Until then, we shall continue to "dance in the dark night, sleep in the morning light". And I shall stop "rambling on".

Apocalypolitics is a great word.

Mike said...

Holy shit, I didn't realize I had written so much. There really should be a paragraph break in there somewhere. Sorry J-Wood. (I'm so gonna start calling you that.)

Matthew B. Novak said...

First off, sorry I didn't get to this sooner. I've been way behind in blogs and my computer being down hasn't helped.

Secondly, I really don't know that the Democrats - as a party, there were certainly individual Democrats (and Republicans for that matter) - could have been accurately labled a party that was open to debate and discussion of many viewpoints. For example, I sure as heck didn't/don't feel like most Democrats are willing to compromise on issues like stem cells or abortion or most of the moral issues that inflame people's passions.

Basically what I'm saying here is that I don't think it's accurate to say either party has in any way been more or less willing to compromise than the other since about '00. I mean, since then it's been basically a debate between "Republicans are right" and "Republicans are wrong." And you're dead on - that's a huge problem.

So how do we shift away from that? I think we need to try to get people elected who are more centrist (there I go again...), who are willing to craft policies that reflect the well-reasoned arguments on both sides. So, for example, with the stem-cell issue: increasing research funds for non-embryonic stem cells seems like a reasonable compromise, especially if some of the money is earmarked for those organizations which have invested heavily in embryonic stem cells, to encourage them to shift to non-embryonic.

Basically, I think the way we do it - note the first person pronoun here - is start talking about new ideas, to start listening to each other, to make a concerted effort to spread the word. And then if these open, honest discussions can lead to good policies, then really "both sides" should be happy. You need to create policies that seem like partial wins for both sides, and then they'll take what they can get. So the way to do it is to see if you can craft ideas that incorporate the strongest elements from both sides, as opposed to simply embracing what seems like the single strongest argument.