Esteemed co-blogger Chris Dierkes has a challenging post on the democratic process. Here’s a decent summary:
In our late modern (or postmodern if you like) world, with the proliferation of many interests and sub-interests, causing fragmentation across society (”the long tail” phenomenon), aligning interests becomes nearly impossible. There are too many interests, too many too narrowly focused, too many too tightly held ,propped up by the professionalization of the lobbying class and the sea of money that bears down on the shores of our politics. Clearing the deck and prioritizing becomes a Herculean task beyond the mere mortals who hold the power these days.
I admit I’m drawn to bloggers (like Chris) who wear their conservative pessimism on their sleeves. But I’m not sure I find this analysis all that compelling. As a purely descriptive statement, I suppose I agree – our fragmented political culture has a damnably hard time getting anything of consequence done. But is this a result of a terribly flawed process or the fact that none of the issues facing our government are incredibly important?
The correct response lies somewhere in between, but I’d wager that most of the problems facing the United States don’t rise to the level of national emergencies. For all our security-related hysterics, terrorism has never posed an existential threat to the United States. Likewise global warming, which will probably be dealt with through a combination of private innovation and intelligent, government-sponsored mitigation strategies. Other problems – endemic poverty, the economic crisis – are certainly important, but I’m not sure they represent anything approaching a true crisis.
In fact, recent history suggests that our biggest blunders have been thoroughly bipartisan – witness the Iraq War’s near-universal support circa 2003 or the ongoing, argument-proof consensus in favor of the drug war. So is widespread political agreement really that desirable? I won’t complain if consensus is reached through considered deliberation, but that doesn’t seem to happen in the political sphere, where agreement is emotive rather than policy-driven. We all know that terrorists are bad people, so we declare war on them. Is this the best policy response? Probably not, but hey, at least our discourse isn’t so fragmented!
This is not to say there aren’t serious problems facing the United States, but I don’t an increasingly diverse political conversation is to blame. As things stand, the most difficult issues are consistently pushed aside precisely because those most affected are not engaged in the political process. If anything, more fragmentation would be genuinely beneficial if it would help expand the spectrum of acceptable political discussion. Elsewhere, Freddie has ably documented the ongoing marginalization of the anti-imperialist left, who, despite having leveled a critique of American power that was largely vindicated by events, continue to be left out of foreign policy. In much the same way, those most affected by the drug war don’t even have a seat at our political table. How many congressional hearings have examined the impact of aggressive drug enforcement on inner-city communities? How many bills have been introduced to address our burgeoning prison population? Jim Webb’s admirable legislative agenda notwithstanding, these aren’t the sort of things that get talked about with any regularity on Capitol Hill.
Instead of trying to forge an unwieldy political consensus, I’d rather focus on diversifying our policy-making process. Maybe we won’t agree on everything, but at least we’ll hear from those of us who would otherwise get left behind. Inclusion isn’t the worst thing in the world.