Our Politics, Our Selves

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We are all supposed to be sick of the partisan nature of politics today. The commentators have lots of explanations. It's the money. It's the 24-hour news cycle. It's the way we draw up legislative districts. Yet it is always sadly amusing to see dysfunction in a democracy described as something that has been imposed by outside forces. Democracy is supposed to express the people's will. But it also reflects our character and our biases.

It is important to begin with the recognition that one man's partisanship is another man's valiant defense of principle. And in our culture we are raised to admire this. Our religious holidays such as Easter or Hanukkah commemorate not compromise but people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. On a more secular note, the competition, commentary and even the commercials at this year's Winter Olympics were once again a celebration of single-minded determination. The moral of the story, over and over, is that the prize goes to those who never give up.

In this cultural context the middle of the road is dismissed as the locale of the wishy-washy. And in many debates it becomes a no-man's land because we put our human ability to reason in the employ of our animal instincts, most notably fear. This is how we create the slippery slope arguments one hears so often in what we refer to as the 'culture wars.' In this line of reasoning any compromise is a concession that leads inevitably to utter defeat.

But in the final analysis the most critical votes in creating a partisan political environment are the ones that are never cast. In most recent presidential elections, close to half of the voting age population never voted and turnout is even lower in state and local elections. If the apolitical can't be bothered, then the more ideological will make the decisions for them.

The narrative of extremism, whether here or in the Middle East, is that somebody else is responsible for your problems. So, it would be appropriate for a bi-partisan, more moderate political climate to begin with the recognition that our current political dysfunction is our creation and our responsibility.


With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.