Thursday, October 3, 2013

Government Shutdowns: Why We Need More Process People and Fewer Zealots

There has been a lot of ink spilled in recent days about the government shutdown. Understandably so - while brinksmanship has become a regular feature of US politics, it's rare that the tires actually wander over the edge of the cliff.

Everybody's got their own view, of course, about who's fault this is. Those views depend very much on party ID and political ideology - a certain segment of the Republican party (not all, but some) think that this is great and that they're winning, while all Democrats and some Republicans think this is a terrible idea.

That partisanship, of course, is a big part of the problem. This is where our tendency to focus on outcomes in politics - whether or not Obamacare gets passed, or we intervene in Syria, or gay marriage is legalized, or any of a thousand other issues - becomes a real problem. Because the process of getting to those outcomes is more important than the outcomes themselves - and we seem to have lost sight of that.

Why is process more important than outcome? Because the process of representative democracy is all we have that binds us together. We have a range of opinions about political outcomes (although as many have pointed out, the policy differences are not nearly so extreme as we like to think - take a look at European democracies). Having different opinions is to be expected; the folks who wrote the Constitution certainly understood that. They also understood that the process - the rules of the political game - are the only way to insure that you get reasonable outcomes at an acceptable cost.

It's that last part that eludes us. We sort of understand (sometimes) that democracy produces messy outcomes, and that you're never going to get the perfect policy (if, indeed, there is such a thing). But what we forget is that in getting there, we really only have two choices:

1) We compromise, cut deals, or come up with rules to determine winners and losers that everybody accepts.

2) We start killing each other. Whoever is left alive at the end determines the outcome.

This sounds extreme, but politics tends to lead in one of these two directions. The moment you decide that a particular outcome - defunding Obamacare, legalizing marijuana, driving illegal immigrants out of the country - is so important that you would do anything to achieve it, it's only a matter of time before the guns come out. If the issue is existential (we must win this fight or our way of life will be destroyed) you will break any and every rule to win that fight. That's why Syria and Iraq are such a mess right now - those are, to the people involved, existential conflicts.

The system of government we have - flawed as it is - was designed precisely with this in mind. It was not designed to produce the best policies, or even necessarily good policies. It was designed to produce policies in such a way that nobody dies. We forget that the precipitating event for drafting the Constitution was an armed rebellion on American soil, pitting two different economic interests - farmers and bankers - against each other.

What does this have to do with our current mess? The decision to shut down the US federal government over a single issue (health care legislation) sends a clear signal. Those that have done so are saying clearly: the outcome on this one issue is so important to us that we are willing to do anything to achieve it. We don't care what the cost or collateral damage are - we will stop at nothing to achieve this particularly policy objective.

This has nothing to do with whether you like or don't like the ACA, or whether it is good or bad for the country. To make the claim that this health care law is an existential issue - that literally nothing is more important, and indeed that everything else the US government does put together is not as important - is the cry of the zealot. It is fundamentally anti-democratic, and fundamentally un-American.

Despite the hyperbole, there is something in common that binds this shutdown strategy (and, likely, a fight in two weeks over the debt ceiling, which will be worse) and terrorism. They differ in terms of the tools used, but they share the same fanatical devotion to the cause - to have their way regardless of the rules and regardless of what anybody else thinks. It is the strategy of revolutionaries the world over, from Lenin to Mao to bin Laden to Assad: I will impose my will on you, because I am right and you are wrong.

This zealotry is clearly emanating from one particular political faction, which therefore owns most of the blame for the crisis. But the political party system at large, and the binary identity thinking it has developed in the American public, are hampering a solution. Realists have told us for generations: when identities and alliances harden and there is no more flexibility, the result is war. What we are seeing is the product of a calcified party system that cannot adapt itself, being taken advantage of by a small band of ideologues with at best 20% of the population behind them. Whether the system can find enough flexibility to find a way out of the crisis remains to be seen.

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