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October 5, 2012

FLASHPOINT: In defense of American politics

TERRE HAUTE — Americans enter this campaign season in a cynical mood. Half of America doesn’t approve of the job President Barack Obama has done and the other half remain fearful of what President Mitt Romney might do. Too many citizens see politicians engaging in endless bickering, while their problems go unattended. Many citizens believe the system is broken.

I argue to the contrary. What we see is the normal messy and unsatisfying — but hardly unprecedented — outcome of democratic politics.

Upset with the current system, Americans yearn for the great statesmen of our past: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. One does well to recall that all of these men were vilified by their political opponents. In the 1800 presidential election, President John Adams was labeled a “hideous, hermaphroditic character.” Meanwhile, a pro-Adams newspaper proclaimed that a victory by Jefferson (the incumbent vice president) would enhance “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.” These make current questions about tax returns and birth certificates seem rather tame. The dirty little secret is that we enjoy tough, nasty campaigns, and politics go negative because it works — and has for a long time.

If you want a good look at our nation’s most polarizing politicians, just drive to Mount Rushmore. Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court ruling establishing judicial review, stemmed from the Jefferson administration’s partisan desire to purge Adams’ appointees. Lincoln, considered by many to be our most successful president, was hands down the most polarizing. His election prompted half of the country to secede and take up arms.

The 1930s and 1960s were ideologically divided amid violent times. Tea Party rallies may be boisterous, but no one is getting their head busted these days.

Ideology expresses our respective visions of a “good society.” Partisan affiliation is how we marshal democratic support for these programs. In politics, it is fair to say that all procedural arguments are insincere. Similarly, almost all calls for bipartisanship are insincere; a call for opponents to surrender rather than a true desire for conciliation.

Are politicians solely to blame for Washington becoming more partisan in recent decades? No. The ideological polarization mirrors a greater ideological polarization in the electorate. America, not just Washington, is divided.

This division has created gridlock, a situation endemic in the checks-and-balances system which our Founding Fathers endowed us. Yet we seem to prefer this outcome. Since 1950, there have only been 20 years when one party controlled all three branches of government. Division is not just institutional, it’s political. The current fiscal mess was caused from our desire for European-style social welfare, with American taxation levels.

Democrats win by promising goodies; Republicans by promising low taxes. Those who dare to suggest that you can’t have both face fierce attack. We expect politicians to tell us we can eat lots of chocolate and stay svelte. When we get fat, we blame them. The old satirical comic “Pogo” captured it well: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Politics is a noble endeavor and the process by which we adjudicate vital national issues. Obama and Romney are presenting clear and contrasting visions of the future. That debate may get raucous, even shrill and angry. Nonetheless, on Nov. 7, one candidate will concede and the other will govern. This is the essence of politics — free men and women collectively resolving our great questions through deliberation and debate. It is how divided societies like ours rule themselves without undue violence.

Caricatures aside, practitioners of politics are largely dedicated, public-minded people. Having an impact on policy is demanding work, while trying to get re-elected every two, four or six years. If your goal in life is to make money, politics is a poor choice. The few examples of venality and selfishness overwhelm the much larger number of politicians who are devoted and hard-working.

The ultimate defense of politics seems weak at first, yet is more profound for being the most practically meaningful. All alternatives are worse. We may bemoan gridlock and partisanship, and cheer or lament the election results. The opposite of division is unity and those political systems that have tried to impose a unified view on their citizens have proven to be the most monstrous tyrannies.

Democratic politics is nasty and messy — the worst form of government, as Winston Churchill reminded us. The essence of democracy is politics. It remains our best hope of producing a better world. And, that is worthy of a stout defense.

Terrence Casey, Ph.D., is a political science professor and head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He is editor of the book “The Legacy of the Crash: How the Financial Crisis Changed America and Britain” (2011, Palgrave Macmillan).

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