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In Defense of Partisan Bickering

5 minute read
Michael Kinsley

So we did liberalism for about a half-century, and then we tried conservatism for a while, about three decades in fact (time flies when you’re having fun), but now we’re tired of that too. So what’s next? That, very crudely, is the political question of the next couple of years.

Maybe the midterm election was just about Iraq, and maybe by 2008 that will be over and forgotten, and the conservative long march to hegemony will resume. Or maybe American voters are sorry they ran away from home and are ready to return to liberalism. But neither of these seems likely, does it? Americans want something new. But what?

Actually, it’s pretty clear what Americans want. They want an end to partisan bickering. They want pragmatic solutions, not ideological posturing. They want leaders who reject politics as usual and put the country’s interests ahead of the party’s. They want a government that will do the right thing, regardless of whether it is “liberal” or “conservative.” They don’t like labels. And, oh yes, they are tired of spin.

It’s been decades, of course, since any important politician admitted to being a liberal. In a reissue of her book It Takes a Village, Senator Hillary Clinton indulges in yin-yangery worthy of her husband’s notable indecision about boxers vs. briefs. “Most of us would describe ourselves as ‘middle of the road’–liberal in some areas, conservative in others, moderate in most, neither exclusively pro- nor anti-government,” and so on. Senator Barack Obama, in his book The Audacity of Hope, concedes only that his mother was a liberal of the romantic, pre-1967 variety, most emotionally engaged with things like the space program.

By contrast until recently, there was no shortage of politicians proudly claiming the label “conservative.” Now, the only serious presidential candidate who calls himself a conservative is former Governor Mitt Romney–and he clings to the label because, based on his record, he obviously isn’t one. Senator Sam Brownback, who calls himself a conservative and actually is one, isn’t considered serious for that very reason. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain, who is serious, calls himself a “commonsense conservative,” thus implying that most conservatives lack common sense. This is even more insulting than George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” of 2000 election because common sense is considered, by conservatives, to be a specifically conservative virtue. Unlike, say, compassion.

This postpartisan era everybody wants is not going to happen, and the great longing for it is childish. What Americans say they want–or even what they think they want–needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Their objection, very often, is less to politics than to arithmetic. Do they want our health-care system fixed? Yes. Do they want Social Security and Medicare on a more solid footing? Absolutely. Will they pay for these things? Not a chance. There are no pragmatic, nonideological solutions to the big question of what the government should do and what it shouldn’t. You can have your government programs and pay for them, like a good liberal, or you can have your tax cuts and forgo the programs, like a good conservative. Asking for both is the opposite of pragmatic.

Another name for the much derided “politics as usual” is democracy. Things get disagreeable because people disagree. Ideology is a good thing, not a bad one–and partisanship is at its worst when it is not about ideology. That’s when it descends into trivia and slime. Ideology doesn’t have to mean mindless intransigence or a refusal to accommodate new evidence or changing circumstances. It is just a framework of basic principles. A framework is more than just a list: all the pieces should fit together.

A politician ought to have an ideology. For that matter, so should a voter. Although ideology is sometimes dismissed as a substitute for thinking, it more likely is evidence that you’ve thought things through. Why is there a huge farm bill and no bill for struggling autoworkers? Why did we invade Iraq in search of nuclear weapons, but not North Korea? Hillary Clinton’s description of her beliefs, quoted above, sounds more like a charity fund-raiser gift bag–a little of this, a little of that–than a coherent philosophy. Her competitors are no better.

Many or most of the decisions that an elected official must make on your behalf aren’t even known when you must decide whether to vote for him or her. An ideology functions like a pledge or a promise, and it allows you, the voter, to judge the politicians seeking your vote in two different ways: their politics and their character. Do you share his or her political principles? And does he or she stick to them as new issues arise? Without some kind of ideology, the politician is asking voters to buy a pig in a poke.

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