I had Republican friends who worried that after the 2008 elections, the Democrats would embed themselves to become a permanent majority. I was calm, however; confident in my belief that it would not be long before the Democrats overreached and lost public support. And it’s happening right now.
My confidence came from a simple understanding: partisans and idealogues overreach when checks against their power are effectively removed. This is true for partisans and idealogues on the right and equally so for partisans and idealogues on the left. Effective competition from the other side makes the majority stay on its game and offer policies that appeal to a broad segment of society. A lack of effective competition produces one-sided policies intended to please ever-more extreme segments of one’s own pre-existing support group.
The solution is, unfortunately, both dull and beyond our immediate grasp: we must defeat hyperpluralism and elect politicians who are both not ideologically polarized and whose political futures invests them in the art of compromise. This, of course, was a pipe dream even when Madison argued for it in The Federalist No. 43. Won’t ever really happen. Seriously, what can be done to encourage it to happen?
We can talk about moderation, the virtues of compromise, and the evils of gerrymandering. But oversimplification of issues, exploitation of irrelevant emotions, and fixing the rules to your personal advantage — these things are easy and effective in the short run. Therefore they are the fabric of our political life. As things stand right now, it appears that neither party believes they have an incentive to make an appeal to moderates, and when moderates hold their noses and pick one option or the other, the partisans take that as a categorical rejection of everything the opposition stands for and, therefore, a ringing endorsement of everything they stand for.
But a vote for John McCain was not automatically a rejection of every policy platform offered by Barack Obama, or vice versa. Rather, it may well have been the result of a voter balancing of a number of factors since both candidates offered a mixture of good and bad policy options within their platforms. That is neither a mandate to the winner nor a lot of fun for pundits to talk about. Reality, though, is often more hard work than it is fun.
So I can call on Democrats to either make a better pitch for the health care program that they’re trying to sell or to modify it so that it becomes more acceptable to the majority of the people. But right now, they have no need to listen. Given that Congressional leaders find the idea of actually reading or even comprehensively understanding the legislation they’re voting on to be laughably unimportant, and the Vice President seems to sincerely believe that we not only can spend our way out of debt but that it is imperative that we do so, it is clear enough to me that considerations of actually crafting good policy are so far down on the list of political incentives motivating our leaders in Washington that they are effectively nonexistent.
Here are the real priorities: first, keep just enough people less displeased with you than the other guys so you can keep your jobs, and second, keep the screamers behind you quiet so they keep writing you checks. The first you can accomplish by making the other guy look even worse than you (which is not hard; typically your opposition will collaborate with you on this one), and the second you can accomplish by finding things that will placate small groups of screamers.