Wednesday, November 11, 2009



Yesterday I read an article about the health care reform bill that narrowly passed the House. The author said the bill faced a "hard time" in the Senate. Just a few votes could decide the issue. Not surprisingly, Obama is now "courting" those few votes, including some "moderate Republican woman from Maine." In essence, then, this means that health care reform for all Americans hinges on the individual proclivities of one or two wealthy Senators.

I call this "horse-trading" democracy. When a political system is as divided as ours today, something truly pernicious happens: A few "swing voters" wind up holding all the power. These "swing voters" know that they hold the key to legislative victory, so they exploit their unique "middle" position to wring concessions from both sides. In essence, they have "really good horses," so they can go to market and really get a good price.

This is not public service. This is crass individual power play.

Some say that American government has persisted for so long because it has a "genius for compromise." They say that real progress flows not from imposing one vision over another, but rather from reasonable dialogue among several visions. That dialogue, in turn, transforms legislative bombast into modest, deliberate action for the Nation as a whole. Compromise, so the wisdom goes, trims radicalism and results in the greatest good for all.

All that may have been true at earlier times in our history. But today the national debate is hopelessly splintered. Democrats don't agree with Republicans. Republicans would rather die than give Obama anything he wants, even in a compromised form. By the same token, Democrats would have rather died than have given Bush anything he wanted when he was President, even in a compromised form. Both sides lambaste and criticize one another with hellish vitriol. Both sides claim that the world will end if "the other side" prevails. It is neither reasonable nor even collegial. In such a poisonous atmosphere, there is no room for genuine dialogue. That is why "real compromise" is an impossibility in modern American government. The two ideological camps are too well entrenched. Nobody budges for the "public good" anymore.

This is not good for the country. Reform suffocates amid compromise and party infighting. Real reform requires a hard look at old problems with new eyes. Yet modern Washington politics rule out any fresh ideas on old problems. Unless a solution fits party-line ideological demands, no one will support it. In the end, this leads to two possible outcomes: "Tyranny by a small majority over a large minority;" or compromise. In either situation, truly sweeping reform cannot prevail. In the first case, the small majority (51%) imposes its will against ferocious opposition; the large minority (49%) then becomes so outraged that it actively undermines the reform's function. In the second case, reform loses its character as reform, because compromise necessarily dilutes its force through myriad concessions.

And then there is horse-trading. To get health care reform through the Senate, Obama must "play ball" with the tiny number of Senators who have not already declared their allegiance on the issue. These "swing voters" not only have an opportunity to enrich their constituents, but also to shape the bill's substance. In essence, "horse-traders" like the "moderate Republican from Maine" get the final say on a momentous national issue. They get to say not only whether the bill passes; they also get to dictate what the law says. After all, they have the horses. They won't sell if they don't get the price they want. So they name the price and everyone else has to follow along. At the same time, horse traders can pander to the opposition by refusing to support the bill. They can achieve advantages from that stance, too.

What does all this have to do with meaningful reform? What does all this petty power posturing have to do with substantial change in a modern world? Nothing.

I don't like compromise government. Yet for better or worse, modern American government has degenerated into an acrimonious two-player game. One side believes the opposite of the other, and one or two individuals on either side can tip the balance one way or the other. In such circumstances, it is impossible to govern by principle or even by popular will. While Congressmen are supposed to represent the people, in the final analysis they are individuals. They can do what they please when voting for bills. In a democracy as splintered as ours, that means a few individuals can block legislative initiatives that millions dearly want. Or they can demand concessions or compromises that gut a hopeful bill's reform effort.

Compromise government never delivers hot or cold; it only delivers mild. Yet life at times demands hot or cold; mild water does not boil tea, nor does it make ice. And when both parties in government cannot reasonably talk to each other, it opens the door to horse-trading. In sum, this entrusts all authority over public issues to a few lucky Senators who are neither hot nor cold.

I do not call this "the genius of compromise government." I call it theoretical weakness and mediocrity. And at a moment when America needs hot or cold, this government will deliver mild at best--if anything at all.

But at least the "moderate Republican from Maine" will get something from the deal. And who cares about what everyone else wants?


René Monroe said...

Isn't it interesting that people continue to vote for politicians like Sen. Lieberman. However, all politicians are like Lieberman on some level. Hence why we need campaign finance reform.

Corporations should not be allowed to donate to a politicians campaign. This would help to eliminate some of the special interests groups that are destroying America. However the chances of that occurring is slim.

Great post!

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

I agree that finance reform is essential. But I also agree that it won't happen in this country. Corporate influence on legislation threatens to undermine what little democracy exists in our system.

I need to explore that issue in greater detail in a later post. Suffice it to say, Sen. Lieberman represents everything wrong with our "horse-trading" Republic. When I wrote this article (11/11/09), the whole Congressional impasse over healthcare had not come to full fruition. Applying my cynicism, I simply predicted that one or two Senators would gum up the whole works. I thought it would be Sen. Snowe from Maine, but Lieberman decided to play the holdout role instead.

Once again, my cynicism foretold the outcome in a political debate. That's why I don't mind when people call me cynical; I just observe reality and made educated guesses.

I hate the fact that one man can dictate (and seriously dilute) the content of a law that many people want to see in a much stronger form. And that was my main point in this essay. When divisions are as fierce as they are in today's Congress, it is inevitable that one or two holdouts will control the outcome. That is just pathetic. That is also why I don't like the term "compromise," especially when something monumental--like healthcare-- is at stake.

This is also the reason why I will never be a legislator in the United States. We need a philosopher-king if we want really meaningful change in America, not corporate-guided free-market horse-trading.