Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Policy vs Politics

Rana at Frogs and Ravens rants about her unhappiness with the view of politics as a popularity contest. She appears to equate attempting to be popular with abandoning one's core beliefs and principles. With all due respect, I must disagree. Taking this position, it seems to me, is incorrectly conflating politics with policy.

Let me start with what to me is an obvious premise: Our (which is to say liberal) ideas are, by and large, better. And, when put to the general public and accurately represented, a majority of the people agree with the left on a majority of the issues. So why are we so completely disenfranchised?

One of the reasons is that we start with the deck stacked against us. Our electoral system is heavily biased towards small and rural states, with the result that you have 55% of the senators representing fewer than half the population. (And the wrong half, to boot, from my perspective.) But that isn't the whole story.

A greater contributing factor, IMO, is our confusion of policy with politics. Many on our side seem to think that, since our ideas our superior, we need only adequately inform the voters and the voters will naturally choose our candidates. And this might be the case if only our positions could be assured a fair representation in the marketplace of ideas. But, as the last few election cycles have demonstrated, our adversaries won't let this happen.

Knowing they will lose on the merits of their positions, the Republicans have distorted and obfuscated our positions and theirs to win electons. Then, having won, they govern as they please in a manner that is often contrary or orthogonal to the way they campaigned. Did Bush actively campaign to scrap social security? To incur ruinous deficits? To go to war in Iraq? To decimate the clean air act? To give away public lands to corporate interests for pennies on the dollar? Of course not. He either barely mentioned these things on the campaign trail or distorted his positions on the matter. And yet these things either have happened, are happening, or are on the verge of happening. How do they get away with this?

The answer, it seems to me, is that they differentiate between politics and policy. Politics is what you do to get elected and policy is what you make after you are elected. And we do a poor job of separating the two. We make our sound policy proposals our political strategy. And we trust that our opponents will allow the voters to honestly evaluate them. Since our opponents won't let us do this we end up losing. What to do?

One thing we shouldn't do is change our positions to be closer to the Republicans. But our politics are another question entirely. We could learn something from the Republicans in this area. Not that we should emulate their example of corruption and ruthlessness. (Well, maybe a little bit of their ruthlessness.) But their idea that you win elections first and then govern second, rather than the other way around...well, that is a concept that we might be well served by embracing.

This shouldn't be construed as abandoning my core beliefs. I want a progressive tax system, single payer health care, more care for the environment, and a more enlightened foreign policy (among other things) as much as Rana if not more. Where we disagree is on how to go about getting them. Rana concludes:

We need a paradigm shift, not another popularity contest

I could agree with that. But how do we get there? Absent this paradigm shift (and Rana doesn't explain how to make this happen) we are left with the hard, dirty business of winning elections. And after we win, we can try for some of the things that we want.


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