Saturday, February 4, 2012

Politics as a zero-sum game

From Washington Monthly:
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) appeared on MSNBC this morning, and spoke briefly about his perspective on the nature of compromise.
“[S]aying to compromise now, and I use this analogy a lot, is just like a coach telling his team to go out and work with the other guys and cooperate with them. The Democrats are there to beat us. Every policy that they introduce is to centralize power. They are completely incapable of cutting spending because their constituency is based on dependency on government and those who want more from government.”

As a matter of policy, we know DeMint isn’t telling the truth. Democrats in the Obama era, much like Democrats in the Clinton era, have cut quite a bit of spending. And as part of the “grand bargain” offer and the so-called super-committee process, Dems were prepared to cut even more, in exchange for some concessions from Republicans. GOP leaders refused.

But it’s that first part of the response that stood out. As Kate Conway put it, “Perhaps governing is all a game to DeMint, but his analogy should worry the real people who have elected him to represent their interests. Viewing his job as inherently combative in nature means rejecting one of its primary objectives — keeping the federal government up and running.”

That’s not an exaggeration. The American system of government, especially at the federal level, was developed after a series of compromises, and relies on additional compromises to complete even the most basic tasks. At a basic, structural level, the story of “how a bill becomes a law” is a story about … you guessed it … compromise.

Take the existing landscape, for example. First, House Republicans have to compromise among themselves, and maybe consider dealing with House Democrats. From there, the House and Senate have to compromise. In time, Congress and the White House have to compromise.

We don’t have a parliamentary system; we have separate branches with a variety of choke points. Compromise is built into the cake. [my emphasis]

Except as DeMint helps remind us this morning, congressional Republicans no longer see it that way. Every conflict is a zero-sum game in which elected officials from the other party aren’t just rivals, but practically enemies. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made the case against compromise last week, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) didn’t even want to say “compromise” out loud a year ago, adding, “I reject the word.”

Of course, if Democrats approached every policy dispute with the identical attitudes, our system of government would shut down.

DeMint wasn’t asked this today, but I’d be curious how he envisions Congress making any laws at all. If compromise isn’t an option, could Washington only function when one party has the White House, the House majority, and a filibuster-proof Senate majority?

Remember E Pluribus Unum - "Out of Many, One"? Maybe it was a sign when the right-wing abandoned that motto in the 1950s.

Today, we're not all Americans. We're not all trying to do what's best for America. At least, that's not how the Republicans see it. They see it as a game. One side - their side - needs to win, and so the other side must lose. It's a zero-sum game.

Well, they've also denigrated government for so long that they've come to believe it themselves, I suspect. If government is unimportant, then politics is just a game.

Compromise means letting the other side win a little bit too, and today's Republicans can't abide that. Their hatred is too strong. They'd rather that both sides went down than see both sides succeed. But "both sides" is America!

I was also struck by that part about how we don't have a parliamentary system of government, because I wonder how many people understand that. Do we Americans even understand our own system of government these days? You really have to wonder.

I hear people talk about third parties, sometimes. How ignorant can you get? Multiple parties might work in a parliamentary system, but that's not America's system of government. Under America's system of government, voting for a third party will just give an election to the people you dislike the most.

Don't you think people would have learned that from the disaster in 2000, when Ralph Nader voters in Florida handed the presidential election to George W. Bush? We have a different system of government from most European countries, so we can't just adopt their multiple parties. How ignorant can people get about their own government?

And the far right-wing is the same way. True, they weren't stupid enough to start a third party. Instead, they just took control of the GOP. But even their leaders don't seem to understand that compromise is built in to America's system of government.

Republicans used to understand this. That's why this nation has managed for more than 200 years (with a brief timeout for the Civil War). But now, Congress doesn't work because the Republicans elected to office no longer understand how America works. Or maybe it's just that their constituents no longer understand that, and Republican political leaders - like politicians everywhere - are too cowardly to stand up to them.

Or maybe it's just that politics has become everything. This is no longer about America; it's become entirely about partisan politics. It's not about governing, it's about winning. It's not about all of us, "Out of Many, One." Those McCarthy Era politicians did us all a severe disfavor by abandoning America's real motto.

And so, today, Republicans are willing to destroy America's credit rating in order to "win." Republicans deliberately sabotage America's economic recovery in order to "win." Cooperating with Democrats is out of the question, because you don't cooperate with the enemy, or even with the other team. Your goal, your only goal, is to win.

And in a zero-sum game, if one side wins, the other side must lose. That might be politics, but it's not government. It's not what America stands for. America is not a zero-sum game.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

The GOP is indeed consumed by hatred. To hell with compromise or even reason. Captain Ahab has to go hunt his whale.

"All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

"Aye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up."

" the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."