Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Can't we politicians all just get along?

There's a consensus among "right-thinking" people that the United States is too politically polarized, and that partisanship and adherence to ideological differences are getting in the way of the important business of governing. The premise is handily summarized in the title of former Los Angeles Times chief political correspondent Ronald Brownstein's new book, The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America.

Brownstein apparently (I haven't read the book, but I've read his columns and heard him interviewed) blames all of this nasty polarization on Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove. Professor Cass Sunstein, on the other hand, blames the Internet. It seems that the information superhighway is at fault for allowing us to find our own sources of information instead of force-feeding us a range of approved opinions the way the old media did. (To his credit, though, Sunstein has backed off his proposal to regulate the dissemination of opinion online, calling his former scheme "a stupid and almost certainly an unconstitutional suggestion.")

But whoever or whatever you blame, strongly held and divergent opinions are a bad thing, we're told, because they get in the way of all the good stuff that government could be doing for us.

Oh, but I beg to differ.

Polarization and the obstruction it offers to the political apparatus are bad things only if you really believe that the "right" policies and programs can be hammered out by bipartisan political elites without need for any serious debate over whether the government really ought to be doing one thing or refraining from doing another. Tellingly, Brownstein points to the 1960s as something of a golden age of political cooperation, when Republicans and Democrats were able to put aside differences and cooperate in governing the country.

Is it any surprise that Brownstein waxes nostalgic for an era when government metastasized at a prodigious rate without any significant opposition in Washington, D.C.?

In fact, that growth in government that so many fans of cooperative bipartisanship so obviously favor may itself be a cause of the vitriol they profess to despise. Having expanded the state to the point that it reaches into every home, every wallet, every business and even personal relationships, political contests have become such high-stakes affairs that nobody can really afford to lose.

When the consequences of losing an election are that government may insert itself into your bedroom (bans on recognizing same-sex marriages), exert potentially ruinous control over your health care (calls for a single-payer system), criminalize your recreational pursuits (outlawing Internet gambling), regulate your menu choices (foie gras and trans fats) and send your kids off to die in foreign lands (do I have to say it?), how do you prevent political debate from turning into a cage match?

In fact, the best most of us can hope for is that government really will be paralyzed by partisanship.

I'll tell you what: If you really want people to play nice and let the political elites go about the important business of governing without all that unpleasant discord, the only way to get what you want is to make government so small that it really doesn't matter.

Until then, I'll be toasting partisanship and paralysis.

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