The national motto of France, coined during the French Revolution, is “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality and brotherhood.) My post’s title is a suggestion for the state of modern American politics: liberty, partisanship, bewilderment.
The conventional wisdom of current American politics is that the increasingly partisan parties on both sides have left a sizable number of disgusted moderates in the middle, swinging wildly from side-to-side in a desperate attempt to find whatever it is they are looking for. Pundits point to three “wave” elections since 1994 (including the last two)–the kind of election that throws control of one or more of the three branches of government to the erstwhile party in opposition. This argument presupposes that “partisanship” is bad and “moderation” is good.
Partisanship used to be a way for voters to make sense of the game, candidates for office were products of the parties and the parties stood for concrete ideas. Partisanship used to represent the clear ideological underpinnings of our modern political parties: 1) Republicans espoused conservative principles, arguing against excessive regulation of business interests, arguing for reductions in personal and corporate taxes and for a strong national defense. Conservatives were generally suspicious of the use of government power to achieve social goals. 2) Democrats espoused the liberal belief in promoting civil rights at home and human rights abroad. Liberals believed in using the power of the government to provide for the common welfare, tempering the eternal strains of liberty versus equality with a judicious concern for brotherhood, our common needs and destinies.
In our era this is no longer the case. Parties and candidates have become divorced from ideas and philosophy. The ideas have become sound bites and the real action in politics is the behind-the-scenes money-grubbing. Neither party is immune to this culture of influence-peddling, yet ordinary citizens seem to be excluded from this process.
Douglas Coupland subtitled his 1991 novel Generation X “Tales For An Accelerated Culture.” He popularized the term Gen X, but the notion of an accelerated culture has lived on into the age of the Millennial: we’re faced with a rapidly changing society. Modern culture has become more complex, more fragmented and difficult to process for many people.
The accelerated culture has created an environment where ideas, and even the political parties themselves, are largely props used by candidates promoting themselves with their own media operations and their own fundraising. Candidates no longer need to hew to the wishes of the party or their ostensible philosophy. When it suits their needs, candidates blur the lines between partisanship and the once basic bedrock philosophies of our two party system. The electoral system now makes it increasingly difficult for the political party apparatus to even select their own candidates. A newcomer with ready cash and hip media buys often can blow away even established, strong candidates endorsed by their party (e.g. Christine O’Donnell v. Mike Castle in the 2010 Republican primary race for U.S. Senate in Delaware.)
Our accelerated culture also has resulted in accelerated politics, elections come so frequently compared to other nations, that it seems hard to draw any conclusions from them. The prognosticator’s only safe bet is, when times are flush, we hold pat and let things ride. In times of insecurity, we fold and look to a new hand.
Ironically for me, the best description of the need for “old school” partisanship was summed up in the very first issue of the conservative magazine National Review in 1955. Editor and founder William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote the conservative magazine’s mission statement: “Our political economy and our high-energy industry run on large, general principles, on ideas — not by day-to-day guess work, expedients and improvisations. Ideas have to go into exchange to become or remain operative.”
Buckley’s mission statement is just as true today as when he wrote it in 1955. Unfortunately, the times have changed. The battle of big ideas has been abandoned, by both sides, and has been replaced by the guess work and expediency he derided. There is no mainstream medium of exchange to develop and test these philosophies. How quaint the notion that establishing a serious print journal of opinion can contribute to (and even change) the national discussion of our politics and our worldview. It was possible in the 1950’s, as Buckley and his comrades helped nurture the modern conservative movement, cresting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and his two terms in office.
Buckley’s quaint notion of the importance of mediums of exchange is impossible to even suggest now. There are currently more mediums of exchange than there are people with ideas. The problem of politics in the accelerated culture is the static to noise ratio. How do you cut through the babble to find ideas you can agree with, work for or even just tolerate? Politicians understand the process and have abandoned philosophy for framing, branding and SEO optimization. Politics and partisan affiliation is not a matter of who or what you believe in, it’s how much bullshit marketing you can stomach. I believe that this is the core of the dismay on the left with Barack Obama. The marketing of Barack as an agent of change was so skillfully done that the left looked at a moderate/corporate supported Democrat as the Great Left Hope. He never was a lefty, but we all wanted to believe so badly that we convinced ourselves that he was one of our own. (He had me at community organizer!)
The kind of retail politics that stems from the development of a clear philosophy can still occur in America–but increasingly only in the lower levels of politics–where money and media do not matter as much. And, as always, I believe that people operating outside the scope of electoral politics, skillfully applying the ju-jitsu pressure of community organizing can be successful in grabbing a measure of control over their lives. There you go–more static to noise. Almost 1,000 words to point out that I believe in citizen action more than I do the electoral process!