Sunday, July 4, 2010

Dining With the Enemy

In this age of political polarization and partisan rancor, I often worry about the fact that I have no real Republican friends.  I did have one.  But when he began spouting Tea Party craziness seemingly overnight, we briefly dialogued and haven't seen each other since.  One wonders whether such profound disagreement on the very nature of society, and such unwillingness to understand the other side, can be overcome by old bonds.

Yet this sort of dialogue almost seems like the one thing that really matters anymore.  Large portions of the population have completely tuned out of all major media and are getting their news and views exclusive from a handful of right wing media sources which arguably cannot even really be considered to present actual journalism.  But if we aren't engaging these people, how else to bring reason back into politics?

Mark Kleiman (heroically!) sat down with a couple.

I just had dinner with.... an old and trusted friend with a sophisticated knowledge of public policy [and] a relative stranger with limited information – both of whom plan to vote for Carly Fiorina over Barbara Boxer this fall. For each of them, the Access to Care Act is an important reason. Their concerns were opposite; the stranger loves Medicare and fears that ACA will cut into Medicare spending, the friend has caught Peterson-itis and is convinced that Medicare is going to eat the GDP, and hates ACA for not cutting Medicare enough.

Similarly, the stranger thinks that extending the Social Security retirement age would be a crime, while the friend regards it as an obvious response to increased longevity.

The fact that they were voting for Fionina for opposite reasons didn’t bother either of them; the stranger has decided that all incumbents ought to replaced, and indeed offered John Boehner’s proposal to raise the retirement age as a reason to vote against Boxer. (All this while railing against “socialism.”)

Anecdote isn’t data, but the hint here is that the Repubilican strategy of obstruction plus obfuscation is, so far, working pretty well.
I can see this happening because while they both professed to care greatly about the ACA, it was really just a sort of partisan bludgeon: the opposition to Boxer stems more from a larger disgust with what she represents on many levels. So the obstructionist strategy creates a scenario in which everything the Democrats do is terrible and almost fascist (“ram it down our throats”). So the good in even something as conservative as the ACA – similar to historical Republican proposals – is denied out of hand, and fodder for further political anger.

The alternative would have been to work out a bi-partisan agreement, and been more honest about elements of legislation that their ideology is actually comfortable with (“government keeping its hands off medicare”). But that would have cost political capital. Republicans would have had to tone down their rhetoric considerably, and admit that they too believe in some government, some of the time. Of course, the right-wing media-fueled tea party has largely tied them into this sort of craziness, but at some point you need to have principles.

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