CHOKE POINTS IN DEMOCRACY
By T.R. Harry
In part I of this rumination, I highlighted that as things stand today in our society, America is out of Balance, Balance—with a capital “B”. This Balance —with a capital “B”—was defined at that point. This imbalance prevents us from moving closer—even from moving in the right direction—to becoming more of a good society. And in a somewhat circular argument, I stressed that a good society is a society in Balance; a society satisfied with itself. There are a number of choke points in politics that inhibit moving toward Balance. One of them is unquestionably the cost of politics, and the subsequent never-ending need for money by politicians; I commented briefly in this regard. Having written about this issue in some depth in other postings here and elsewhere, I did not feel the need to completely reinvent that wheel again in this polemic.
Another issue, or choke point, which is the subject of this continuation, is that of ideology in politics. As I ended Part I, if you think money in politics is a difficult issue to address, prepare yourselves for an even tougher one here! How in the world do we consider taking ideology out of politics? Two questions face us: Can we? And, if we can, should we? Well, we’re going to pursue just these questions now.
First off, just what is ideology? We delve briefly into what ideologies are in Chapter 4 of The Gathering of the Clan: They are value or belief systems. We all have them, and this is important to keep in mind. They run from individually held positions described as extremely liberal to extremely conservative, not only about political matters, but about social, economic and religious issues as well. In most cases our belief systems—liberal to conservative—hold to all these areas pretty uniformly. So, if you tend to view religious or social issues from a conservative (or liberal) perspective, chances are your political views are consistent with such an ideology. Said differently, ideologies are systems of abstract thought (as opposed to mere ideas) applied to public matters and thus make this concept central to politics. Implicitly every political tendency entails an ideology whether or not it is propounded as an explicit system of thought, or not. It’s how we as political partisans view society; how we believe society should be ordered.
A brief sidebar in this connection: In modern political theory there are two models, or conceptions, of politics which differ significantly. One is usually called the ideological model, the other the interest model. The former operates along the model of a scale, or spectrum, such as a left/liberal–right/conservative spectrum. There could be other scales. The other, the interest model, is rather of a game-theoretical nature concerned with developing winning coalitions. It is the first, the ideological model which we will be discussing. It, in most people’s opinion, is the one most responsible for producing this political choke point—a choke point being a point of obstruction or hindrance, not infrequently potentially fatal.
I introduced another term that needs clarification: partisans. A partisan is a supporter of a (political) party or cause. A supporter based upon his or her ideology, his or her value and belief system. In other words, it is ideology that produces partisanship; one who supports and follows the political party which most closely reflects his or her values when looking at society overall, and would include such sub-issues as the economy, education, health care, labor law, criminal law, the justice system, the provision of social security and social welfare, trade, the environment, minors, immigration, race, use of the military, established religion and the size and scope of government. This listing is not intended to be exhaustive, and I’m sure it isn’t for most of us. But as we will speak and at times use these two terms almost interchangeably, partisanship and ideology, we need to be clear about them. Okay, enough preliminaries. Let’s see if we can’t attack the problem: ideology (or partisanship) in politics.
Our first question was, in effect, can we have politics without ideologies? As a general observation, it would appear, historically, that whenever you have electoral politics, you will have political parties, based either upon an ideological model or an interest model, or possibly both. Given our governmental model of representative political democracy, we are going to continue to have electoral politics. Hence, we are stuck with political parties. Why is this? Because it is through attracting and then grouping people with similar value systems, outlooks or “ideologies” that you have the basis for parties; birds of a feather, and all that. As such, parties offer voters a short-cut to making political decisions come voting times. You may or may not be intimately familiar with the political thinking of any particular candidate, but if he/she is running as a candidate of one party or the other, you have a pretty good idea of his/her general ideology, and how closely it does or does not correspond to your own. So, on the positive side, parties supporting a known ideology do tend to support our electoral system (and here I will assume we are not going to change our electoral system).
Many countries have an electoral system supporting multiple parties vying for voters support. In America, while we have a number of political parties that cater to what could be called the extremes of ideology, or single purpose agendas, our electoral system really only supports two primary alternatives, at any one time. Again, I have gone into just why this is elsewhere, and won’t go into it here. Just accept it as “the way things are.” Why? Because the question at hand is ideology in politics, not whether we should change our electoral system. It is not impossible that, in the end here, this might be a recommendation, but it isn’t an argument at present.
The conclusion to this point would be that, if you are going to have electoral politics, you are going to have political parties. And if you have political parties, you are going to have ideology of some nature involved. Okay, point accepted.
But if, as indicated above, ideologies can be helpful in decision making in our electoral system, why are they considered a choke point? Because, in our political model, we only have two at work, and they tend to be far too oppositional; too antagonistic to one another; far too inflexible to produce effective compromise government, no matter which political party we elect to manage and direct government. While it would seem unnecessary today to have to substantiate, or make this argument, let me say the following:
Given the degree of partisanship—ideological extremism—apparent in our principal political parties today, there is a demonstrated unwillingness, or inability, for them to cooperate with each other sufficient to govern the country in the interests of all or even most of the people, at least most of the time. This says that neither party under present conditions is capable of conducting government for the over-all good of the country. Why not? Because the party in the minority will do its utmost to prevent it. Not that there may be something inherently wrong with intended government policies; not that they may not be viewed by a majority of voters as acceptable or even desirable, but because their ideological reference is in opposition; Compromise is viewed by too many as capitulation, which is understandably politically unacceptable. Politics as such is viewed as a zero-sum game. Therefore, it is to their political benefit to see the governing party “fail” so that they may politically prosper come the next election. At least near history would support the contention that the primary emphasis and activity of either of our two major parties is to function in a manner to oppose, discredit and defeat its political opposition, not to govern the country with concern for what may be best for the majority. Consider this excerpt from Michael Kinsley’s Column in the July/August issue of The Atlantic:
“ . . . One of The Atlantic’s biggest ideas of the year in 2008 was post-partisanship. . . .the notion that our world would be better if politics would rise above partisanship—or if politicians would rise above politics, or if governing would rise above politicians . . . This is the year partisanship made a comeback, . . . with Republicans deciding to oppose President Obama’s health-care reform before they—or for that matter, Obama himself—knew what was in it… They didn’t offer an alternative proposal. They rejected all those imploring them to come to the table . . . they were, in a word, partisan.”
Without question, ideology is a choke point, par excellent!
Is this the way most of us would like to see politics and the government we derive from politics operate—even if today it’s what we’ve come to expect? Questionably. But at base, it is oppositional ideology that is the cause of this: both parties supporting, and being supported by partisan interest-groups, who have come to feel that it should be their way, or the highway; that only they are right in determining what is good for the country. How can that approach to politics succeed in producing a government that governs for most people, or that even accomplishes anything of significance? And to add insult to injury here, those “partisans” at the base of both parties are a clear and small minority of the American electorate. Today, neither major party commands the following of more than a clear minority of voters. Yet it is from this highly restricted either-or option that the rest must choose. The outcome of this I have described elsewhere as a least-worst scenario—a Morton’s fork, or dilemma, if you will—for a clear plurality of America’s voters. It’s absurd!
Both parties are guilty of this practice. Thus, it makes no difference today which of the two parties the voters elect: the problem with this under current political arrangements is that it is simply a game of musical chairs. After the music stops, and the seats refilled, the game remains the same. We still have but two ideologically opposed parties, each struggling against the other to obtain or maintain political power with governing for the majority only a secondary consideration, or collateral benefit. Little in the way of social or economic progress should be expected. Issues that have remained unresolved will most likely continue unresolved. We are adrift.
The next obvious question in our search for an answer to can we take ideology out of politics is: is America really as partisan, as ideologically segregated and at odds within its ranks, as our politics would seem to indicate? Are Americans in general as narrowly ideologically focused as today’s political parties disputing the right to govern? A brief look at the partisan bases of these parties is illuminative.
Sampling over the past almost fifty years by the American National election Studies (ANES) project indicates that the percent of voters (sampled) identifying themselves as Republicans (both strong and weak) has averaged 25.6%, and has not been higher than 30 percent. In 2004 this figure was 28 percent. For Democrats, their average self-identified following was 39.9% over this period, and peaked at about 52% (1964). In 2004 this figure was 33 percent. Polling by others, the Pew Research Organization, for example, closely parallels these numbers. For 2008, the Pew number for Democrats was 36 percent and for Republicans 27 percent of voters.
So if we sum-up the voters declaring for both the Republican and Democratic parties, taking 2008 as reference, we get just about 63 percent of total voters. Where is the balance of some 37 percent? In third-parties? Apparently not, for the preponderance. They are what are identified as Independent (registered) voters. They either classify themselves as Independents, or decline to state a preferred party. Thus today, and for some time now, we have as many Americans, or more—a plurality, actually— opting for a political status that says we are not committed Democrats (liberals) or Republicans (conservatives), although many of us “lean” more in one direction than the other. This questionably sounds like a firmly divided ideological battleground between our citizens.
A separately asked question in this ANES survey shines additional light on the intensity, or lack thereof, of the left–right ideology of voters: the question asked is, “Where would you place yourself on this (7 point) scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?” Over a seventeen year period from 1972 the average responses (figures rounded) were, Extremely Liberal, 2 percent; Liberal, 8 percent; slightly Liberal, 9 percent; Moderate, Middle of Road, 25 percent; Slightly Conservative, 14 percent; Conservative, 14 percent; Extremely Conservative, 2 percent; and finally, Haven’t thought about it: 27 percent.
These voter responses, today and over the years, as well as the track records of both political parties in producing governments the majority of (polled) Americans give positive—even passing— grades to, cast serious doubt on either the desirability or the need for the majority of Americans to continue to suffer the consequences of extreme ideology in our political parties, which continually produce disappointing outcomes from government. This conclusion should be sufficient to declare that, in answer to the second question, yes we should get today’s Left–Right ideology out of politics. Unfortunately, this still leaves us with the question of can we?
A rational and pragmatic answer to this question, can we, seems to be no, we can’t. We can’t unless we all somehow can simply vacate or ignore these value and belief systems—our personal ideologies— when making political choices; Folks, that’s something I realize at least I can’t do. I have to have a moral basis for most things I do and the decisions I make (Such actions and decisions taken may or may not be on a liberal–conservative basis, but they are nonetheless morally influenced). And if I can’t then chances are you can’t, nor should, either. We live by our values. Most of us want to live in a society that is for the most part consistent with, and conducive to, supporting our values. These may from time to time change in minor ways; sometimes in significant ways, but that is the exception, not the rule. So where does that leave us with this political choke point here? How do we, if we can, get rid of, or at a minimum relieve, this choke point in politics? If we want government that works better for all of us, this seems a must. And for now, I continue to favor not changing our current electoral system. It may be somewhat broken, but I am confident it can be mended. I have two suggestions.
The first has to do with the way we currently use ideology in our politics. Today we use it mainly as decision criteria. Something is either a “liberal” or a “conservative” issue, politically. This makes decision making an either or situation. It greatly inhibits cooperation. Forget bi-partisanship. That’s a fiction, a good sounding normative concept that, by the nature of Left–Right ideology, isn’t probable. If something is agreed to on a bipartisan basis, it’s only because both parties see benefit, not necessarily that both agree it is good or good for government. Equally fictitious today is the concept of centrism. What is a centrist on Left–Right spectrum? Where does liberalism end and conservatism begin? What does the supposed location (centrism) consist of? Yes, there are moderates on both sides (or at least there used to be), but a so called centrist politician from either the Democratic or Republican parties only exists for campaigning purposes. As such, he/she is waving to and wooing independent voters without whom we have indicated neither party can expect to win.
What we need is to change the way we use ideology as a—maybe even the— primary decision criteria in politics from a bi-polar liberal–conservative option to something else. If we don’t then we continue the same game: what liberals propose, conservatives will oppose, and vice-versa. The status quo continues; no one wins but the politicians.
My second suggestion is that (contrary to contemporary campaign strategies) we need to refocus our electoral politics (Elections) away from public relations campaigns and, especially, personality contests, “playing politics” with voters and more towards offering voters clear and concrete measures and policies the parties will pursue if elected—specifics, not easily evaded generalities. Only then can the voters know what they are voting for as opposed to who they are voting for; and only then can their record be considered come the next election. Most will recognize that this is a lot easier said than done. We have already conceded that we can’t take ideology out of politics, even though we should. How can you pin-down politicians to specifics? I believe there is a way to approach both objectives.
Go back to the point made above that neither party can expect to win without the support of Independents. This recognition of the criticality of Independents is a significant fact in our politics today. To again highlight this reality, a plurality of voters self-declares as independent of party affiliation. Today some believe this number to be as high as forty percent. This is not to claim that ideology is absent in these independent voters. It is to claim that it is not strong enough keep them within the folds of the parties representing these opposing ideologies. Why it isn’t may be a legitimate question, but one we needn’t go into here for the matter at hand. Keying off this reality, perhaps it is Independents that can give us an answer, or resolution, to dealing with these problem of incompatible ideologies and vagueness and obscuration in our politics.
I shall make a couple of initial assumptions now. One is that ideology is not the key factor in how (most) Independents vote (if it was, why aren’t they registering accordingly?). As such, their decision- making, come election times, is based on other criteria, as well. Not impossibly, upon more pragmatic, or even self-interested considerations.
A pragmatic as opposed to an ideological approach to politics is possible. The distinction is that the former treats particular issues and problems purely on their merits and does not attempt to apply doctrinal, preconceived remedies. Pragmatism and ideology may be considered as two extremes of a sliding scale (not unlike liberalism and conservatism). But by introducing pragmatic considerations in political decision making, we reorient the decision-option from between only opposing ideologies, to between ideology versus, basically, classical utility. It is recognized that presently utility may figure in political considerations, but primarily as an economic or “can it be done” basis, given the particular ideological preference. That is, it is not a primary consideration for the existing parties, as is, by necessity, their uni-polar ideology.
By utility here, I intend the classical form, or more correctly a modified version of it: this is generally stated, what is best for most; that which produces the greatest happiness; the greatest good for the greatest number. That would be the primary political decision consideration, under constitutional limitation. Put into a more formal statement it would read: A philosophy of producing the greatest good for the greatest number, manifest in a policy of governing for (at least) most of the people all of the time and for all of the people most of the time. This is, perhaps. no less an ideology than is liberalism or conservatism, but it is a clearly different ideology that has the potential, for those not already absolutely set in their ideological way—which seems today to be a preponderance of voters—to serve as a political decision criteria: Independents, for example. It might also be enticing to some of those who today declare their allegiance to either party, but only as “weak” partisans.
Yet another short sidebar: I have denied the concept of centrism within our present two-party system. For semantic purposes, it’s not impossible that a political decision approach movement based upon utilitarianism could not be described as a “political no-man’s land” between the two traditional left–right ideological parties. In this sense, it might be considered centrist.
Now, admittedly, this approach would only work if there was an organized political movement which formulated its policies in such a utilitarian manner. This brings us to my second suggestion, pinning down politicians. For some time now, our elections, so far as the average voter is concerned, have been less about political parties and their specific political agendas than about individual personalities as their representatives. Some say this can be traced back to the candidacy of Jack Kennedy. At any rate, it’s not too critical to say that today it is the candidate (presidential usually) that largely defines, or is the face of, the party not the party that defines the candidates. This needs correcting if political trust and loyalty are once more intimately bound, as they should be: If the candidate asks for the voter’s trust, the voter(s) have a right to expect their loyalty. So long as candidates are not publically committed to their party’s platform, no matter its content, so long as they are allowed to “run loosely under the party umbrella” this is not possible. To the extent individuals are allowed to pick and choose among their support of and for their party, the voter, based upon the political cloak the candidate wears, and which so many voters use as a “short-cut” to choosing, will never be able to be assured of that loyalty.
What this means is that, more as in times bygone, it will be more important to “vote the party” than to vote any individual candidate. Purpose trumps personality. That candidates, running under the party banner, must publically commit to their electorate their full support of the total party platform needs to be obligatory. This minimizes the ambivalence of RINOS or DINOS. If the party can’t count on its candidates, how can the electorate count on the party? Only in this manner can the individual candidate and the party as an entity be held accountable by the voter. Only in this manner can the electorate have knowledge of what the party will, as a unity, attempt to do if it is successful at the polls, and make its choice based upon the public declaration of intention of how it would govern; the word of the party; a clear point of responsibility; the means of “pinning” politicians down.
But enough: We have what we sought here. To recapitulate:
A. We have today a plurality of voters for whom our traditional liberal to conservative ideology does not seem to be their primary political (election) decision making tool. Yet, today, they have no option but these two approaches when it comes time to vote. These Independent voters, so critical to election outcome, end up with no representation in the government they help elect.
B. History suggests we would benefit, politically, from a primary-decision-criterion different from the traditional oppositional, antagonistic left–right approach. Pragmatism or more correctly utilitarianism could be a workable alternative. It might even define centrism.
C. To reunite political loyalty with political trust, a clearer more reliable approach to political decision making in the voting booth seems desirable. A return to the primacy of the party at election times as opposed to the individual or personality seems appropriate to accomplish this.
D. The recommendation in C above would also facilitate a move to the pragmatic/utilitarian approach to political decision making. As neither of the two primary political parties who depend upon the traditional Left–Right ideology could realistically make such a change absent drastic overhaul, this suggests a new political movement favoring Independents should be both welcome and viable within our existing electoral system. I cite Duverger’s law in this connection.
I warned you it wouldn’t be easy. But it appears it would be doable.
Thomas Richard Harry