Sebastian and I have

November 17, 2003


Sebastian and I have about run dry in the earlier debate. Actually, we ran dry several exchanges ago, but argument and inertia do keep things going. And, as Annie pointed out, we were debating oughts and not actuals.

I want to start a tangent based on the last couple of exchanges, and a tangent gets its own toplevel post.

While Sebastian and I have surprisingly different policy goals, mine by preference and his as a compromise, our approach to the debate was shaped by a surprising similarity. He, a conservative, and I, a liberal, both approached major policy questions from the perspective of beleaguered minorities. And, as beleaguered minorities, we were suspicious of outside policy proposals. Similarly, Annie was feeling left out because we were not engaging her posts, she too felt like a silenced minority.

But why was everyone feeling like a minority? Is there no mainstream any more?

Personally, I look at national policy debates from, well, a national perspective. I see Team Texas in the White House, a Republican majority in Congress that goes out of its way to ignore and marginalize the Democratic minority, and state-level Republican parties, especially in Texas, who are willing to break the code of customary respect in order to gain political advantage (I am thinking of the redistricting proposal). If you know that John Ashcroft will be in charge of executing the laws, you just assume that those laws are going to be executed in a partisan fashion. (1) On the national level, the Republican party is currently dominant, that party is dominated by its conservative wing, and that wing is dominated by the Texas crowd. You don't have to buy into the whole Kevin Drum Texas conspiracy theory to distrust these guys.

So, I fear giving them any advantage because I do not trust them to use their power wisely. Those are harsh words, but there you have it. Emotions can be harsh.

Holsclaw seems to feel that the current legal system is largely to completely to the liberal side. He made those statements when talking about abortion policy. Expanding that insight to other conservatives, Randy Barnett of Volokh worries about speech laws and civil liberties. Many conservatives appear convinced that popular culture and the media are against them and that they have to struggle to get their moral messages through a society dominated by music and images glorifying self-indulgence and cheap populism. I have to admit, when I see Hollywood movies turning again and again to cheap ripoffs of populism in order to rally the audience against "the man", I feel like reaching for God and Man at Yale for a counter-injection of conservativism. I do not yet have Emperor Misha's vitriol at being surrounded by "liberal idiots" - but if you have the stomach to read him go flip through a couple of pages and notice that he writes with the voice of a beleaguered minority; he sees idiots everywhere.(2)

Annie, meanwhile, is cranky at the male-dominated tone of our argument. We were phrasing things in terms of natural law morality and abstract legal justice. We were not using data, or looking at outcomes, or conveying any empathy for women. Women have historically been silenced in political discourse. Contra Kim Du Toit they are still under-represented and under-voiced. There may be more women than men, but they do not have a public voice comparable to their numbers. This might be the mommy track taking people off the grind to high office and high corporate positions, it might be subtle sex discrimination, it might be that the schematic strict father / nurturing mother does indeed describe how we want our politics; if enough voters want an authority figure in office and respond to men who project authority, then women will indeed have trouble gaining office and trouble gaining the bully pulpit.

If everyone feels like a minority, and everyone is defensive about it, how can we raise the tone of political discourse?

The first, something I failed in my original rant about lies, is to be very sure that we understand our opponents before we criticize them. I have been struck this week by how good Eugene Volokh has been at making sure he understands the things he comments on. Other pundits should take lessons from him. To the extent that I opine, I include myself in that category.

Following that, we need, all of us, to ask people if they have made their point in the most constructive way. The challenge is to do this both to the people you agree with (at the cost of appearing to rhetorically disarm) and to people you disagree with (without appearing to be chaining the subject or ducking their points.) dueling rants are counterproductive. I already vote against Republican demagogues; I currently support Clark over Dean largely because Clark can make his points without going over the top with his style and without giving in on the substance.

Beyond that, add my name to the growing list of people who are concerned about the long-term consequences of our current districting system for the health of our polity. While there have always been locations that are strong for one party or another, more and more we are moving to a system of rotten boroughs and safe districts. Too many candidates run unpacked or effectively unopposed. This means that, as in the early 19th century, the real elections are the statehouse elections before the decennial census. One reason that the Texas redistricting hack bothers me so much is that De Lay and his Texas buddies are setting a precedent where once any party gains enough of the statehouse they can redistrict the state, right then, so that they will not lose another election.

That sort of politics kills a two party system. Go re-read Michael Holt's Political Crisis of the 1850s. In the past single party politics in the United States has produced politics of personality and of personal character assassination within the parties or, in the late 1850s, purely sectional politics to the point where people who lost a national election could not imagine life as a minority and seceded rather than be destroyed. One-party politics have been unstable in the past. And while two-party politics has its faults, I would like to think that if we drop two-party politics we do so after serious consideration.

Is there a better way to handle redistricting while still keeping geographic electoral districts and first-past-the-post election laws? Gerrymandering is a fine political tradition, just ask Elbridge Gerry at the start of the 19th century. Redistricting has traditionally protected most minority party members who are currently in the legislature while giving an overall benefit to the majority party. I don't want to turn districting over to a judge, we might turn districting over to a commission but those are not stable solutions. What I want, but can not imagine, is some form of the old cake-cutting solution: I cut the cake, you have first choice of pieces, so I have an incentive to cut the slices evenly.

With luck this would resolve the "waah, we are all minorities" problem. There is a big difference between turning to lawsuits, extra legal pressures, or dropping politics altogether and the fine political tradition of "wait until next election." If we always feel that we will have a chance in the next election, then any loss is only temporary. And, if we know that we can always lose the next election, any victory will not be exploited because, to do so, would be to set a precedent for when the other party has power.

I am not sanguine about electoral reform. If half of what I fear about the Diebold machines is true, then things are getting worse. (Oddly, I have encountered conservatives worrying about what those Democrats are trying to do with the push-button machines. Paranoia runs deep.)

That means that the only way that districts are likely to be shaken up is if we see a new political alignment. Some of the signs of such an alignment are in the air - the small l libertarians are forming their own wing to try to turn libertarianism from men in tinfoil hats to a viable alternative to Texas Republicanism. Dean, despite his terrible phrasing, wants to challenge the current ethnocultural focus of many Southern voters. 2004 is going to be an interesting election. I suspect that women voters are going to be the big surprise here. I have been struck by how many women operate political blogs - in cyberspace no one hears the pitch of your voice - and how powerful their words have been. While women generally vote class, religion, and race before they vote gender, that can change, especially if we see more groups of women working to get women the early funding and name recognition they need to get through primaries and state and local level party committees.

(1) It is not true that I despise all Republicans. I despise Ashcroft, DeLay, and Rove. They are partisan hacks who are perfectly willing to sell out the democratic process in search of temporary advantage. I dislike Bush 43: he has a systematic disconnect between his rhetoric and his policies, and lies are my hot-button issue, but the man appears to be trapped within his world view while the others are aggressively malicious. Cheney and Rumsfield, while I disagree with many of their policies I approve of the men themselves. Both are smart, do appear willing to re-think their assumptions, and can (usually) tell the difference between a political disagreement and a bonfire. Powell is not part of the inner circle, I generally like him. I don't know enough about Rice to have an opinion.

(2) For the record, I think that anyone who seriously believes in a "political correctness" movement is an idiot. And, if you parse Misha and remove the emotion and ranting, he ends up saying very little indeed.

Posted by Red Ted at November 17, 2003 10:14 AM | TrackBack