The Unraveling of Politics

Belligerence and brute force are supplanting politics as the way America addresses issues and Americans address each other.

Belligerence and brute force are supplanting politics as the way America addresses issues and Americans address each other.

The “cancer of our time” is the unraveling of politics and the emergence of belligerence and brute force as political principles, says New York Times columnist David Brooks.

"We live in a big, diverse society,” Brooks writes. " There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society – politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics.”

Brooks cited Bernard Crick’s line from his book In Defence of Politics, "Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.”

Politics has become increasingly unpopular. Voters disdain “politics as usual.” “Establishment politicians” are derided. Anger has become a campaign rallying cry.

Those who preach anti-politics, Brooks says, have turned to political outsiders, delegitimized compromise and trampled customs. “They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine,” he says. 

Politics at its best is messy, Brooks explains. "Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.”

What anti-politicians serve up are "soaring promises" that "raise ridiculous expectations.” Inexperienced anti-politicians thwart the political process, making government appear even more dysfunctional and generating ever-deepening voter cynicism. That disgust, in turn, leads to stronger demands for outsiders who are even more unbendable and politically reckless.

That downward spiral of politics breeds a pandemic that infects officeholders open to deal-making and compromise. They fear looking open to a deal will be a sign they have become part of the political establishment.

"We’re now at a point where the Senate says it won’t even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution,” Brooks observes. "We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We’re now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.”

"And in walks Donald Trump. People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means."

Brooks says, "Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of 'I’d like to punch him in the face.’”

Politics is in retreat around the world and authoritarianism is on the rise, Brooks contends. For America, "The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements.”

Politics works, he says, when people "recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.”

That’s the beauty of politics, Brooks argues. "It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.” 

Americans Divided by Bipartisanship

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Bipartisanship may be rare because Americans only pay lip service support to the idea while actually preferring compromises that favor their partisan perspective.

That's the conclusion of research out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business that suggests what Americans dislike is uncivil discourse. However, that dislike translates into hardened partisan views. "In politics, that kind of powerful party identification overrides any professed preference for the abstract concept of bipartisanship," according to the research.

Neil Malhotra, a professor in political economy, and his Stanford colleagues compare politics to sports. Fans may be shocked by athletes fighting or acting badly, but they still want their team to win.

Americans conflicted attitudes about bipartisanship aren't an isolated example, say the authors. There is broad support for civil liberties and free speech, but often intense intolerance for the exercise of those freedoms by groups that are unpopular or controversial. Americans want to see government shrunk, but not at the expense of programs they value or depend on.

The experiments Malhotra and his team conducted showed people recognize bipartisan solutions, but still favor outcomes that more closely mirror their views. That underlying reality may buttress resistance in Congress and state legislative bodies to resist calls for bipartisanship because it doesn't produce political attaboys.

“Our research demonstrates that even though citizens dislike the institution of Congress and profess abstract desires for bipartisanship, when it comes to the details, they prefer partisan fighting," Malhotra says. "Therefore, the behavior of members of Congress seems to be consistent with electoral incentives.”

"No matter what they say, people do not actually favor bipartisan policies over those that align with their personal political views – even though compromise is perceived as a virtuous quality," the study’s authors write. "In fact, when people become aware of the compromises made during the policy process, they are even less supportive of bipartisanship because they see it as a loss for their party."

The issues used in the Stanford research were relatively benign, not like the more emotion-charged issues that Congress faces. The research findings cast doubt on hopes that a spirit of bipartisanship will emerge in the halls of Congress for the ironic reason that it may be too politically risky.

The Eloquent Listener

We have a lot of fast talkers, sweet talkers and trash talkers. We have few eloquent listeners.

”Eloquent” isn’t a word often used to modify “listener.” However, it is what the late Howard Baker, Jr., in the twilight of his life, described as his best virtue.

Eloquent listening isn’t about hearing what you want to hear or agreeing with everything that you do hear. Eloquent listening is all about hearing without malice.

Baker’s passage last week puts another punctuation mark on the apparently bygone era of conciliation. We no longer celebrate men who, in the words of Baker’s stepmother, resemble the Tennessee River, flowing exactly down the middle of the state.

Eulogies recalled Baker’s famous question that summed up the country’s curiosity about Watergate — “What did the President know and when did he know it? He was celebrated for his efforts as chief of staff under President Reagan for navigating the Iran-contra scandal.

Two Nerds, One Big Idea

Republican Paul Ryan (left) and Democrat Ron Wyden ignited a political firestorm in Democratic circles by jointly proposing a Medicare reform plan with private-sector involvement.Compromise and election-year messaging are often lightning bolts streaking in opposite directions. Congressional Republicans, intent on uprooting President Obama from the White House, have felt the tension. And so has Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who teamed with House Budget Chair Paul Ryan on an improbable proposal to reform Medicare.

Congressional Republicans buckled to election pressures as they agreed to a compromise last week to extend a payroll tax cut, continue jobless benefits and block a Medicare fee cut to doctors.

But Wyden has no reason to buckle. A Democrat, he was re-elected comfortably in 2010 and remains one of Oregon's most popular political figures, in part because he is willing to work across the political aisle. Seeking bipartisan solutions on controversial issues is viewed today as the act of a political maverick in much the same way as Senators Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield opposing the Vietnam War.

The Potomac Watch column in the Wall Street Journal ran a piece describing what it called the Democratic establishment's "War on Wyden” for his Medicare collaboration with Ryan. It noted New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called Wyden a "useful idiot" to Mitt Romney's presidential election bid. House Democrats, according to WSJ, "hissed the plan would end Medicare as we know it." And a former Senate staffer complained Wyden undercut a key argument for Democrats regaining control of Congress.