Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Political Future?

I will confess that I've been caught a bit off guard by political developments -- or, rather the lack thereof -- in both Canada and the US. I normally don't comment on developments in the US and don't like to because I don't really have anything out of the ordinary to say, or at least I don't have anything more than the average person who watchs the news. I don't reseach American politics, teach it, or even delve very deeply into it. I think, however, in this case developments in both countries seem to be related.

A few months ago, I started to write my first substantive blogs on American public life. In them, I argued that the nasty mud-slinging style of American politics (the Karl Rove factor, let's call it) was about to end. OK, it was not going to end tomorrow but in the near future. There was, I argued, nothing to be gained from it. Obama's campaign had demonstrated on an empirical level the follow of Karl Rove strategies in terms of building a last political coalition. Because Rove, and other in the Bush government, were not interested in "big tent" politics, assumed political alienation would keep most people away from the polls, and prized ideology over compromises necessary to broaden the public support base, they had moved the Republican Party into more and more extreme versions of itself. The end result was a win by hook or by crook politics with a, frankly, shockingly simplistic understanding of foreign or domestic policy issues. To win, Rove and crew believed, one needed only something like 25% of the people on one's side and one could get this through an extremist discourse. The old style of brokerage compromise and accomodation politics was out.

Thankfully, I felt, this was at an end. The Democrats were no political angels but they had hit upon a different formula for victory. After a number of years trying to duke it out with the Republicans on their home turf, they abandonned that turf and, like good capitalists, sought new markets. If they could keep their base of support and extend it by drawing in more hispanic immigrants, minority and youth groups with historically low voter turnout rates, they could win without having to apologize for being Democrats. Indeed, their belief was that there was an audience in search of their message that could be accomodated within their party. Their approach was more classically brokerage, adding together middle class women, regional blocks in the Northeast and Pacific Coast, together with union support and minority groups and ... presto ... one is in power with a, let's call it, progressive, agenda.

While the Democratic political resurgence was not that simple or that short, that is -- more or less -- what happened. Having seen this, I figured that the Republicans would briefly spin out as a talk show hosts and pundicts stepped up as temporary party voices, but then good sense would prevale. The Republicans would realize that there was not much to gain if they were interested in being in government from continuing the Rovesque policies that, in fact, had cost them government. They'd need to rethink their policies, moderate some views, silence extreme voices, and take the ideal of accomodating diversity seriously. Otherwise, they did not have enough votes to win. Republicans might not like this, I believed, but math would trump ideology. I firmly believed that the Republicans would not get into a death match over things like health care reform (heck, who can opposed universal medical care?), rethinking the military edge of the Bush doctrine that has helping to bankrupt the country, and would rethink the need to regulate markets in light of ... well ... gee ... what shall we call it? Complete economic meltdown? In other words, I believed that somewhere in the Republican party there were realistics and public minded people who would re-evaluate their policy commitments against their empirical record and adjust matters accorrdingly. Where a policy had failed (such as private sector health care or go-it-alone foreign policy), the Republicans would choke one up to history and move on. I didn't expect them to abandon their commitment to capitalism (but to accept the reality that unregulated financial markets are a problem). I didn't expect them to abandon Christianity (but to accept the idea that calling people "Godless" likely has no place in a democracy predicated on the separation of church and state). Etc.

I did not expect this process to happen right away but I did expect to be seeing the signs of it. I imagined it might take the Republicans two years to make this transition but that it would be well advanced by now. Oddly, from my perspective, this has not happened. The Republican Party seems to be more and more defined by its most extreme wing and that wing, for right or wrong, clearly feels it can win without moving from the electoral strategy that kept Bush in power for two terms. Thus, rather than rethinking their commitment to unregulated financial markets, they've tarred those concerned about economic stability with being a "socialist" (I am, by the way, a socialist and I can tell you that the Obama admin is not socialist!). Rather than attempting to preserve some aspects of a two-tiered healthcare system, they have chosen to stand and find on it out on this issue as it were a death match. Rather than moderating their discourse and looking to engage the public in a reasoned discussion of the merits of different policy perpectives, they've drummed up a language of "death panels" and called Barney Frank a "Nazi." (As Jon Stewart noted, one lives in an odd time when a gay Jew is called a Nazi.) Rather than looking to find their own new markets, they've dragged Rove's bag of tricks out of the closet, dusted it off, and deployed it with a vengeance (a good example is Fox New's substitution of rally footage in which they reported on one anti-health care rally but showed footage of a different and larger rally that was about something else conveying the image that the anti-health care rally was much larger than it was).

Why have the Republicans not changed and why should we be concerned about it? There are likely a lot of reasons. Opposition parties reduced to rump support often run into this problem because their main activist base has shrunk to the most extreme versions of themselves. In other words, its shrunk to people who actually believe that Obama is introducing death panels and that gay Jews are secretly supporters of Naziism. What is important here is that it appears I was wrong in my thinking. The Republicans have not done what struck me as politically rational to do. And, there has been a spill over into Canada. In assessing the situation in the US, I believed that once the Republicans abandonned the Karl Rove electoral success handbook, the Conservatives in Canada would, too, and would turn themselves back into a more classic brokerage party that looked to unite alternatives to liberalism under their banner. The extreme approaches of the Republicans, however, seem to have either delayed a Conservative transition in Canada or upheld morale enough that Canadian Conservatives have stuck to their guns. In other words, the morass of public life that has prompted widespread political alienation shows no signs of abating and this is my real concern.

The change I looked to in the US was, I saw, a new opportunity to republic public life. The extremism, mud-slinging, name-calling, lying that defined the political dynamics designed to secure power by capturing a minority of votes would give way to the search for new political markets that would, of necessity and because they were new markets, needed to be approached in different ways. The result would be an elevation of political rhetoric, a halt and hopefully reversal in voter apathy.

My argument had the great merit of being logical. Each point in my chain of reasoning followed from the one before it. Its weakness, right now, seem to be that it lack an empirical foundation. And, with that, I now am starting to suspect that my hopeful future is somewhat less hopeful.

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