James Kerian: How Politics Works

In 2004 the Republican establishment in Pennsylvania backed Arlen Specter for the Republican nomination for the senate because, they said, the more conservative Pat Toomey could not win a general election in Pennsylvania.

Pat Toomey is now a senator from Pennsylvania.

In 2010 the Republican establishment in Florida backed Charlie Crist for the Republican nomination for the senate because, they said, the more conservative Marco Rubio could not win a general election in Florida.

Marco Rubio is now a senator from Florida.

These mushy/moderate/liberal/establishment/statist/democrat/traitor/etc members of the GOP were wrong (or lying) about what majorities could come together in their respective states but they were not wrong that politics in this country is an inherently majoritarian undertaking.

It did conservatives no good to nominate Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Barry Goldwater or any of the other anti-establishment figures who were unable to attract majority support from the electorate.  In fairness, of course, it has done the establishment GOP just as little good to have nominated Dole, Romney, McCain or any of the other candidates they have dragged through the primary process only to fail to attract majority support in the general election.[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]If your political activity is about advancing the ideas and values that are important to you then, in a republic, you will frequently have to work collaboratively with people with whom you deeply disagree.[/mks_pullquote]

GOP candidates losing in the general election, in fact, harms every American who wants to see this nation move to the right in terms of public policy.  The establishment may want to see the nation move only a smidgen (if at all) to the right while the rest of us would prefer that it go much further, but when the Democrats win the nation moves even further to the left and then we all lose that much more ground.

It has become stylish again to pretend that political ideology is binary.  You’re either with me or against me, for freedom or against it, a patriot or a statist, etc.  In this view there is “no difference” between any member of the GOP with whom I strongly disagree and the members of the socialist party.  But the truth is that political positions are not binary but distributed widely across a broad spectrum and not one of us could put together a majority coalition made up of people who agree with us on every political position that is important to us.

The art of politics, then, is to build a majority coalition made up of people who agree with you enough to move policy in the direction that you believe that it should move.  Or, if that’s not possible given the ideological makeup of the electorate, to build a majority coalition made up of people who agree with you enough to slow down (as much as possible) the movement of policy in the wrong direction.

In philosophy you can worry solely about being right and if your political activity is solely about your self-image or your own intellectual entertainment then you can do the same thing in politics.  But if your political activity is about advancing the ideas and values that are important to you then, in a republic, you will frequently have to work collaboratively with people with whom you deeply disagree.  Because, in our system of government, it is only through forming a majority coalition that you can influence public policy.

Frustration with this reality has led some people to abandon electoral politics and to focus instead on academic, media or cultural initiatives in hopes of changing the electorate so that it will be easier (possible?) to form a majority coalition that is more conservative.  These initiatives are important and should be pursued but abandoning electoral politics is a mistake.  As Aristotle pointed out “the law is a teacher” and it is essential to do everything possible in the present moment to move public policy in the right direction as far as it can be moved with the current electorate (however limited that may be).

Sometimes that means working across party lines such as when republicans joined with many congressional democrats to deny President Obama authorization to bomb the Assad regime in Syria.  Frequently it means libertarians and social conservatives overcoming mutual distrust/disdain in order to work together against Obamacare, the funding of Planned Parenthood, or most of the rest of the current administration’s initiatives.

Nearly always, however, it will mean working with people with whom you deeply disagree.  It has always been that way.  It was the alliance of religious zealot abolitionists, “moderates” and northern business interests that kept slavery out of the border states and paved the way for the greatest public policy reversal in the history of our nation’s politics.  If all you want is to be right then you can watch electoral politics as a spectator.  But if you want the ideas and values that you cherish to be advanced (or at least the rate at which they are eroded to be slowed) then, in a republic, you must work with the best majority you can form out of the current electorate.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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