Wednesday, February 25, 2009
The Political Bell Curve
Our new prez is reaching "across the aisle", as the pundits say, and trying to close the breach that has plagued American politics since Jefferson and Adams hired PR hacks to lie about one another in an effort to become President Number Two. Adams, apparently, was the more successful smearer, although Jefferson returned the favor the next election cycle to become Three. Political snarling has a lengthy pedigree and there really weren't many (if any) good old days when the two parties put their collective shoulders to the ground and noses to the wheel, an activity that makes for some really hideous noses, and created legislation that was supported by all involved.
Obama seems intent--and I wish him success--but, as a long-time realist and recovering cynic, I doubt that there will be any dramatic shift in the comity quotient inside the D.C. echo chamber.
I have a pet theory or three about why the current snarling seems so widespread and constant. Would you like to know what they are? No? Too bad because I'm going to trot them out for inspection anyway.
First, in the past 30 years or so, the size of political staffs in Washington has exploded. These folks write the legislation, deal with the lobbyists who help write the legislation, write position papers and speeches that the lawmakers present as their very own. Often, a legislator doesn't know what his or her position is until the staff decides. In the case of Robert Byrd of West Virginia, he doesn't know what year it is or if he is still breathing without staff confirmation.
Once was, lawmakers actually took a significant role in the law creation and policy development processes but now they are consumed with raising money for the next election and don't have the time. Young staffers (and they are mostly young, energetic and ideological) do not have to stand for election and therefore can carve out, with impunity, some radical positions for the boss to take. Given that the boss doesn't really have time to think deeply and often about anything but fund-raisers and donors, the ideological lines in the sand, from left to right, get further and further apart.
The second theory deals with just the House of Representatives. Both Republicans and Democrats are in on this one and it's called "redistricting". You may recall in 2003 when all the Democrats in the Texas Legislature hid out in New Mexico and Oklahoma trying to avoid a legislative quorum that would have led (which it eventually did) to a vote to redistrict Texas in such a manner that there would be a majority of Congressional districts that were solidly Republican. See, the district lines get re-drawn based on polling place and census data to make the district a "safe" one for whichever party is re-drawing the lines. This is also known as the gerrymander, after the fictional critter of indeterminate shape that describes the new, often odd-looking district. How, you may ask, does this contribute to politicians in Washington who barely speak to one another? Well, thanks for asking.
In a safe district the general election is a foregone conclusion, that's what makes it "safe". Therefore, the real drama takes place in the primary election, among the candidates from the party that created the district. If you are a Democratic primary candidate in a liberal safe district, you had best be REALLY liberal otherwise the "base" of your party will look on your more liberal opponent with favor. When pundits talk about the "base" of either party, you can substitute the word "kook" and find that they are synonymous.
In a :safe district" primary, the only voters who count are the ones from the party that owns the district. A voter from the minority party is just voting so that he or she can get one of those little "I voted" sticky thingies. Their candidate has no chance in the general election but the voter will get yet another little sticky thingy. Therefore the majority candidate who makes it to the general election has had to appeal to his or her "base", make some odious promises to same and sell their soul to these devils, if they weren't already a kook themselves. This is how people like Cynthia McKinney and Tom DeLay end up in Washington talking past each other. With great relief I can report that both of these politicians are gone from D.C. now (interestingly, McKinney rose up from ignominy to run for president this last election on the Green Party ticket and was trounced rather soundly by a young, semi-black man from Chicago). However, Cynthia and Tom's replacements in the House are products of the same rigged system.
Finally, there is the wonder of talk radio, the perfect media outlet for bloviators from either kooky end of the political Bell curve. The conservatives have really co-opted this forum because the kookiest of the liberals aren't much good at it. Besides, as almost everyone seems to believe, without any reliable imperical evidence to prove it, the main-stream media are all the lap dogs for the liberals and the scales weren't fairly balanced until Sean Hannity, et al, came along.
Well, apparently, even some conservatives are now questioning conservative talk radio's real contribution to the party's appeal beyond the kooks...I'm sorry, base. In fact, one of my favorites, John Derbyshire, posits in the American Conservative Magazine that conservative talk radio is counter-productive to growing the Republican Party back to a position of relevance.
I suggest that you give it a glance: http://www.amconmag.com/article/2009/feb/23/00006/
Observoid of the Day:
You can point something out to a dog but the dog will just stare at your finger.