Social Question

critter1982's avatar

Arguing for the sake of partisanship?

Asked by critter1982 (4100 points ) August 31st, 2009

First I apologize for the length….I was sitting down last week re-reading through some of the comments that I have received and I got to one that really got me thinking. @Bri_L had asked me a question. Do you think we are at a time in history where it is no longer useful to use labels like socialism, democracy, etc?

In George Washington’s fairwell address he warned us that partisanship would tear the country apart,

”The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

George Washington warned us that partisanship would spread antiparty sentiments based on particular party ideologies and that it would be more difficult to reach agreements on actions to promote the public good. Ironically however, disputes over political issues during Washington’s adminstration led the US to the formation of political parties.

I guess my question really lies within the purpose of political parties and there motivations? The 2 major political parties today (democrats and republicans) seem to make up for about 90% of the population (give or take). Their ideologies are starkly contrasted, and in fact I’m not sure they agree on a single ideology? What this leads me to believe, is that each group tends to want partisanship strictly for the sake of partisanship. The problem is that sometimes there are definitive right answers and wrong answers, and in today’s political landscape, often those right answers can be found somewhere in between two polarized sides. With two huge political parties driven partially by the media and their relentless ongoing need for dramatic manifestations it’s no wonder politics remain extremely divisive.

IMO, the first step to putting things in the right perspective is understanding that there are such things as right answers and wrong answers. They are usually complex, and there are multiple examples of each for any situation, but at the end of the day we have to come to the understanding that results can prove or disprove a theory, and that a theory should not be maintained just for the mere sake of argument. I think viewing ideology as a rule of construction rather than divisiveness allows us to talk about the same thing, rather than argue, and thereby to arrive at solutions that, to the extent possible, are tailored to advance one or more core principles without hurting other core principles.

Do you think it’s time to eliminate political labels as they seem to drive significant distractions from urgent issues that need action, when both sides will continue to simply argue for the sake of partisanship?

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13 Answers

wundayatta's avatar

This seems like either a very cynical attitude or an attitude that pragmatism trumps everything. You seem to assume that neither party has any integrity, and their views are based purely on partisanship. You assume they don’t want to get anything done, but just hold up any other solution.

While there are some cynical legislators, and some out to line their own pockets, and some pragmatists, and some ideologues, there are also politicians and people who actually believe their policies are best, and even have evidence they believe proves that their policies are best. In general, I believe that 90% of politicians are well-intentioned and, at the federal level, want what’s best for the country.

Finding compromise in the middle often ruins the chance of an effective solution to a problem. Half measures are often worse than nothing at all. Of course, that’s what usually happens anyway. Sometimes politicians are more willing to speak civilly, and perhaps more willing to compromise, and other times they are more divisive. We are currently in one of the more divisive times in our country’s history, I believe.

Labels are the shortcut that almost everyone uses to communicate very complex ideas. People use labels as epithets in order to scare people from or to attract people to their point of view. It’s a fact of life, and it will never stop because labels are useful and often contain a fair amount of truth.

I appreciate that you are thinking about how to grease the wheels of the legislative process, but I think the solution lies somewhere else. Somewhere that is actually practical. I think we need to start thinking about how to listen, how to appreciate, and perhaps most importantly, how to use scientific information in the development of policy.

critter1982's avatar

@daloon: So you do believe that there is more room for listening and appreciating? What in particular, do you think is preventing our politicians from doing this now?

cwilbur's avatar

@critter1982: Look at the sound-bite nature of the press. They want a 10-second statement; there’s no place for a complex argument. It’s far easier to say “those stupid Demublicans are ruining our country!” than to say “Well, we think the best solution to this issue is this, and the best solution to that issue is that, and we’re willing to compromise on this point and that point if we can get these things done.”

Syger's avatar

Political labels should have been abolished long ago. While at the same time they do serve the purpose of generalization that America’s become far too comfy with.

wundayatta's avatar

@critter1982 Character? Lack of skills? I don’t know what is included in the new congress critter training, but somehow it seems to me that Ted Kennedy might have been the last of a dying breed.

Perhaps voters don’t elect the Congressional Representatives to make legislation. Perhaps they elect them to advocate for them. I don’t know.

Qingu's avatar

I’m not really sure what the alternative is.

If you don’t have 2 parties, you have 3+ parties who nonetheless have to join together and form majority coalitions to govern a country. What’s the functional difference between one of these multiparty coalitions and the Democratic Party—which is really a coalition of somewhat disparate interest groups and ideologies?

Now, I tend to agree with the Democratic party platform on most things and disagree with the Republicans on most things. So I call myself a “Democrat.” I don’t agree because I’m a Democrat—I call myself a Democrat because I agree with the Democrats.

I would certainly agree that there are a lot of people on both sides who treat their political parties like sports teams and take positions just because their “home team” says they should, and these people deserve scorn. But let’s not conflate blind party faith with actually holding opinions and arguing for them.

critter1982's avatar

@Qingu: No I agree there are lots of people who are capable of coming to a conclusion on an ideology on their own, but I’d be willing to bet for everyone of those people there is somebody that cannot. There are lots of reasons they couldn’t with the most excusable one being that they just don’t truly understand the ideology and the underlying principles of that ideology. These people extend their faith to their particular party in telling them what they should believe. This isn’t inherently the problem. The problem comes when you get these people arguing for something they don’t truly understand. You get loud and obnoxious people in town hall meetings screaming, “Keep the governments hands off my medicare, for example. You get people voting for Obama who have no idea what he stands for (ie. There was a Howard Stern program that sent people out into the hood to ask whether or not they thought Obamas choice of running mate, Sarah Palin, was a good choice, and many agreed). You get people, ignorant people, on a very large scale affecting what is occurring in Washington.

I’m not arguing for more parties, I am arguing for zero parties, where you get politicians campaigning on ideologies alone. Maybe, @daloon is right and I am being super cynical but I rarely put politician and integrity in the same sentence.

Qingu's avatar

@critter1982, if you have no parties, you still need a majority coalition to govern a country.

That coalition can consist of independent ideologies. But inevitably it’s just going to resemble a political party.

I don’t think our two-party system is the cause of political corruption. I also don’t think it’s the cause of widespread ignorance in America. I basically feel that the number of parties in democracy is neutral; the way politicians and citizenry operate within a two- or three- or whatever-party system is what’s important.

augustlan's avatar

I would love to see party labels eliminated. Here’s how I imagine such a system: Each candidate campaigns on issues only. You could have a list of, say 10, issues that the country feels are the most important ones facing us at any given time. Each answers a questionnaire giving their ideas of how to deal with those issues. When voting, you would vote on each issue independently – no names, pictures, or party labels attached. It seems to me that you would then have the people in power who most resemble your ideas on the issues facing the day. Those people would then (naturally) form coalitions based on issues, working with this group on this issue and that group on another. Flexibility, not lock-step agreement with an overall ideology.

Jeruba's avatar

That’s a nice idea, @augustlan, and I love your vision of flexibility, responsiveness, and collaboration, but I don’t think our present environment would allow such a system to work. I don’t know when the tide turned, but quite some time ago we went from having candidates who took positions on the issues and then were voted on for their positions to candidates who tried to find out what stands the voters wanted them to take and then took those stands. So I think we would still find ourselves with candidates who based their positions on poll results and not the other way around.

I believe in the democratic process and the will of the voters, but I also expect prospective leaders to know more than I do about the key issues and to have perceptions, ideas, skills, and personal strengths that I don’t have. I don’t want a leader who is a reflection of me; I don’t consider myself qualified to run the country or any part of it. I want a leader who can form a true picture and analyze and comprehend it deeply; who is wholeheartedly committed to the best interests of the nation and the people; who knows what needs to be done and how to do it, and has the courage of his or her convictions.

What I think we need is leaders who will actually tell us what we need to hear and not what we want to hear—who step out and lead rather than finding the proverbial parade to get in front of. But politics is now so much a matter of pleasing the biggest and richest constituents and playing to the media that it will take a sobering disaster to put us back there, if indeed it can ever be done.

Unfortunately I think we’d be more likely to find this kind of leadership in a monarch than in an elected public servant, just because of what it takes to get elected and what that process does to even the most honest and well-intentioned candidate.

dalepetrie's avatar

Though I think political parties are indeed part of the problem, I sort of reject the premise outright. First of all, the number of people who are either Democrats or Republicans is nowhere near 90%. Yes, give or take a few percentage points, the percentage of voters who vote for either the Democrat or the Republican is around 90%, but essentially you have about 26% who are partisan, meaning they would vote for party over person. And this is not 26% of the population, nor is it 26% of the eligible voters, but 26% of people who actually do vote consider themselves to be either Dems or Republicans. The other 48% consist of people who generally gravitate towards one party or the other (I believe that is around 18% on either side), and the 12% left in the middle is the people who truly have no party ID, so yes, 90% lean one way or the other. But if you look at that 48%, you’d realize that there is really a LOT of room for other points of view, other parties if you will, but people these days vote strategically, they don’t by and large vote their conscience.

What I mean is, go back to 2004, imagine you are not a Democrat, but you are fairly liberal in your worldview and tend to gravitate towards the Democrats. Now you might well rather see a Dennis Kucinich or a Ralph Nader in the White House than a John Kerry, but you are NOT going to let Bush win AGAIN. If you didn’t really think Gore could lose in 2000 so you voted for Nader, or you didn’t really realize how bad Bush would be and voted for Nader, you might have thought twice about it if you lived in a so-called swing state before you voted your conscience in 2004. I saw this play out in Minnesota….when Jesse Ventura ran for governor, I didn’t think he had a chance….my conscience wanted me to vote for him because I liked his ideas better, but I didn’t think he’d be able to beat the former Mayor of St. Paul who brought professional hockey back to Minnesota and the son of a former Vice President…but we got closer to the day and polling suggested that the Dem was not going to win….the Republican in my view was every bit as bad as Bush would be 2 years later, and my conscience said I’d be better off voting for this 3rd party candidate. And he won.

Now, there is another factor to this as well. Remember these figures, the 26%, the 18%, the 12%, these are people who vote. But look at 2008, a year in which we had 130 million voters, 64% of the electorate. That means 36% of all the people eligible to vote didn’t even show up. So, realize that the 26% is actually 64% of 26%, or basically what you are left with is really, only 35% of America is either Democrat or Republican. The largest single group in the US is actually “don’t give a shit/none of the above”. Realize that Obama won with the votes of 52.9% of the 64% who voted, so in essence he got 33.9% of the vote. But 36% picked none of the above by staying home.

THIS is the single biggest indicator that a 2 party system does not work. But is it really a problem that we have two polarized parties? Well, as long as you have people in either party who vote their conscience, then it really doesn’t matter. And on the Democrat side, you have ALWAYS seen a large number of Dems willing to defect on certain issues, whether their motives are pure is a different question, however. But, what we’ve seen on the Republican side, and this became MUCH worse under Bush, but has always been a core part of Conservative idealism (conservatives value loyalty over ideology, liberals value ideology over loyalty, just how it is, not sure why), is that Republicans can be whipped into voting for the party orthodoxy. Indeed, what we’re really seeing now is that the Republicans were so badly repudiated in the last election cycle that in order to maintain credibility, they are basically voting lock step with the party orthodoxy on every single vote. It would seem that in the larger of the two legislative bodies, it is de rigeur to get every single Republican voting against any bill, no matter how much sense it makes, if is favored by the Dems…they leave zero room for bi-partisanship. In the Senate, we have a few Republicans (Olympia Snowe comes to mind) who can and will defect, but they are the very small exception, not the rule. However, when Bush’s initiatives passed Congress, we did not see very much of the Dems voting lock step against it, even if the bill seemingly went against Democratic values….a fair number of things from the war authorization to the confirmation of Bush’s 2 SC appointees sailed through despite the cries of party activists on the left.

So, one part of the problem is that you have two sides playing by different rules, and that is an ideologically driven divide, one which you’ll never get rid of because as they say, a rose by any other name. If there were no parties, the liberals would lack any sort of cohesiveness and the conservatives would become loyal to conservatism, not Republicanism, and they STILL would be able to push through their agenda much more easily. So, the real problem with our legislative process is that it is made to reward not the collaborators, but the co-conspirators…our process lends it to a strength in numbers driven system which is completely antithetical to the idea of “may the best idea win”.

The whole purpose of the party is to foster this kind of cohesiveness that is needed to pool power, and the strength of the parties lends itself to dominance. For any additional parties to gain power, power would need to be ceded by those who already have it, and who in his right mind would cede power to someone who would use their power to destroy some of his own power? It would be self destructive of a political party not to use its strength to survive. Political parties after all are nothing more than not-for profit businesses….they serve a purpose, to field candidates who match the general ideology of the party. And on the surface, that is a good, indeed necessary thing if a party wants to make any mark within our legislative process.

What I would however argue is this….the parties are not the root cause of the problem, they are but a symptom of the overall problem. The problem being that money is power and those with money will use it to gain and keep power. And as such, our system being set up to allow the influence of money/power via our even having parties which are themselves money collecting power centers, ends up leading us down a path where the more money and power you have, the more influence you can buy. Our government was set up at a time before the advent of the corporation, and the corporation was set up essentially to have all the rights of a regular human being with none of the responsibilities. The main responsibility of a corporation and those who direct it is to return value to the investors. If one must break the law to do so (or buy governmental influence) then one must, because to ignore the fiduciary duty to the shareholders would get the leaders of the corporation thrown in jail far more quickly than would a few shady campaign contributions and running roughshod over environmental laws or what have you.

In other words, to get away from a system in which people are partisan for the sake of partisanship, where our legislation can not be hijacked by special interests who are masters of distraction, we need to completely remove the influence of money from our electoral system, and at the same time, we need to open up the doors to all parties and not just the two well represented ones. What we need to do is to publicly finance our elections first and foremost so NO ONE could make a campaign contribution…there could be no tit for tat. Next, we would need to severely restrict the actions of lobbyists in what they could do, and where and how they could do it. Next we would need to institute something like instant runoff voting. And finally, I’d envision that we’d open up all debates to a set number of parties, say 5, and the 5 parties would be chosen on the strength of their ideas. I’d envision say we would convene a non-partisan panel of experts to suggest what the most pressing issues were for any election, then we would use public polling to whittle these down to say the 10 most important issues facing the electorate. Each candidate who won his/her party’s nomination (even if there were 20 of them) would provide an answer as to what they would do about each of these 10 situations. These answers would then be polled again to determine which 5 candidates/parties represented the largest number of Americans collectively (even if that meant no Dem or Republican was running). Those 5 would be the choices for the election and they would debate. But right now, that could never happen because the debates are hosted by corporations, they are not run for a not-for-profit like they once were. We need to take the influence of money ENTIRELY out of the equation, and if we did that, within a decade we would have a diverse group of lawmakers who would not have a bloc power to stop progress. We would be able to expect debate on the merits of a bill, and there would be no financial incentive for our leaders to fight against logical bills which serve the public good.

On that note, I bid you all good night, but I am going to suggest as I have been doing for a while now, anyone really interested in the problems with our government and why things aren’t getting done, how Americans are distracted from the real issues and sold the lies, NEEDS to read this book. If I could afford to buy a copy for every single person on Fluther, I would.

Zuma's avatar

Partisan labels exist for good reason. Trying to eliminate partisan labels won’t eliminate the reasons for partisanship, and any attempt to do so is a misguided attempt at Orwellian Newspeak.

The reason we have an ideological divide in this country is because we have a contest between two fundamentally different political philosophies with two fundamentally different visions of the country. The reason these ideologies have become polarized is because people see their interests in jeopardy and are mobilizing to defend them. If we didn’t have these contests playing out in the political arena, they would be played out in more direct forms of conflict that could lead to civil war.

It used to be that the difference between Democrats and Republicans was that the Republicans were the party of business, corporations and the creditor class, and the Democrats were the party of the working man, the consumer and the debtor class. But, around 1971, the Democratic party sold its soul to a new generation of high tech and high finance corporations, greatly muting the class-consciousness inherent in our partisan politics.

Thanks to it’s success in championing the rights of minorities by enacting Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity legislation in the 1960s the Democrats came to be defined the party of the excluded “Other”—blacks, Hispanics, women, gays and, to a lesser extent, the elderly. In reaction, the Republicans defined themselves as the party of “real Americans” which, of course, is code for a white-centered, male-dominated, Christian vision of America that embraces segregation and Jim Crow as a time-honored American tradition.

The Republicans are, thus, primarily concerned with preserving the privileges of a white, male, Christian majority against the encroachment of a Democratic vision of America which takes “liberty and justice for all” quite literally to include minorities, women, gays and everyone else who has been excluded from the “real America” so far. Partisan labels allow us to distinguish between an exclusive and an exclusive vision of America.

All this nonsense over “big government” versus “small government” is a smoke screen. Both parties, as the Bush II Administration has made abundantly clear, are in favor of big government (all the better for corporations to loot the country with, my dears). The Republicans even really aren’t against socialism, so long as it is for the rich in the form of bank bailouts that don’t inconvenience the shareholders. What they do go ballistic over are social programs like universal health care, which will inevitably take money from nice, virtuous white folks like “us,” to pay for the lack of insurance of lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothing poor people (black, brown, poor white, single mothers) like “them.”

The Republicans have no trouble whatsoever spending $47,500 to incarcerate someone (usually a minority) for a year than to spend the same amount to support four families of four on AFDC. In other words, Republicans have no trouble with higher taxes, so long as those programs go to preserving and exacerbating race and class inequality rather than ameliorating them. But, of course, to admit that this is their real vision of America would open them to criticism of being contrary to American values of equality and fairness; so, ideology has to condense, blunt, falsify, and sweeten the whole deal by portraying themselves as the party of morality, God, apple pie and motherhood.

Everybody knows the score, even if no one dares articulate it. So, in this respect, ideology becomes a necessary, even essential, rallying point over these two fundamentally conflicting visions of America can fight for the soul of America without necessarily having to admit what, exactly, they stand for. In a sense, the way the Republicans use “conservatism” as a shibboleth is a kind of newspeak, insofar as it shields the user from full intellectual engagement with a rather dodgy position.

But the fact that our political discourse has become so impoverished is not an argument against ideology or labels, it is an argument for unpacking the political “hot buttons” that currently comprise our political discourse, and deconstruct or explicate the real issues that are implicit and at stake in our ideological struggles.

JLeslie's avatar

You can’t go by how people are registered to figure out the stats in the country. My dad, a republican for 30 years, changed to dem two years ago. He really feels he is an independent, but in his state you can’t vote in the primaries, or not so it will count with how the system is set up right now, unless you belong to one of the big parties.

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