In recent years, the political climate has been more akin to a spectator sport than a legitimate method of instituting good policy. People are more interested in sound bites and political propaganda than the actual policy which is going to be passed and the media has been going right along with it. Tabloid politics such as the Weiner scandal and the antics of the Palins sells better than less interesting things; things like pointing out that the rich are robbing us blind and then using our own money to buy our politicians.
Let’s face it, watching dumb people make fools of themselves is good TV (See: reality/game shows, sitcoms, etc.), but focusing all political media on the next ignorant thing to pop out of the mouth of Bachmann/Palin/Perry to the exclusion of actual news will be the death sentence of our democracy. Politics is not a reality show, and at some point we will need to actually discuss policy, rather that the antics of the political personalities.
In political science there are two major components to the creation and implementation of public policy: Politics and Policy. The policy component is the substantive policy decisions that are eventually made into a bill. Policy has no partisan gamesmanship, only competing ideas as to what the most effective ways to bring about the best results are. The political component of public policy is the political games that must be played in order to garner support, negotiate, and deal in order to get a policy agenda passed. In many ways the politics of the legislature is disconnected from the actual policy outcomes because it doesn’t matter how good the policy actually is just as long as it can be passed.
Theoretically, good policy should be accompanied by good politics and the best ideas will win out, but in reality this system works just about as well as an unregulated free market. The right wing of the country has truly awful policy, ranging from the unconstitutional (abortion/anti-immigration legislation), to the purely fantastical (trickle-down economics/war on science), but they are amazing at politics. To give credit where credit is due, the Republicans have not only dominated the political agenda but convinced large numbers of ignorant people to vote entirely against their interests even in the face of evidence.
The Democrats propose policy that would be beneficial to most of the country, whether by reducing pollution or strengthening the social safety net, but they (Obama most of all) are unable to advocate their policy to the people. In a world dominated by the fact-free sound bite the Republicans have completely shut out the Democrats and then used the worsening conditions to improve their own political prospects. Many would assume that this is a pro-Democrat statement, but it is equally damning on both parties.
I posit that the Republicans are intentionally stalling economic recovery efforts in an effort to harm Obama electorally due to the fact that they are now rejecting their own initiatives (Ex. the payroll tax cut); the fact that the Democrats are failing to mobilize against the Republicans, even with the Republicans’ evident hypocrisy, is evident of one of several weaknesses in the Democratic Party as a whole: either the Democrats simply do not see that their positions are far more popular than the Republicans’, or they are inability to articulate a convincing argument as to why their positions are superior and more popular. In making this argument, I am assuming that the Democrats as a party are not “throwing the game” in service to big money donors, for if this is true we are in far more trouble than most people have realized.
Republican politics has overshadowed their policy to the point where the president’s job proposal was being blocked by the house at the same time that are they threatening another government shutdown over giving aid to disaster victims (Ex. The fight over aid to the Joplin tornado victims); someone playing devil’s advocate would argue that the Republicans disagree with both the president’s job plan and the disaster aid based upon principle but this argument has one major flaw: In the recent past, Republicans have supported both disaster relief and virtually every initiative included in the president’s jobs plan. Not only have the Republicans supported projects similar to those included in Obama’s plan, but they were the ones to initiate the tax cut that would be extended by the plan. The Joplin tornado series cost the country millions of dollars due to damage, but far less than hurricane Katrina, and Katrina was funded without incident. Disaster aid has never been a controversial issue in the United States, that is, until Obama became president. If ideas that were supported by both parties are uncontroversial until a Democratic president suggests them, the only explanation is that the opposition cares more about politics than policy.
Republicans as a party are blocking simply everything, regardless of substance, in order to hurt the country and defeat Obama. Due to the Republican ability to sell even the most insane and self-destructive policy to their base voter, through a combination of religious rhetoric, deceptive facts and slogans, they can completely ignore policy and focus entirely on getting elected.
To be fair, the Republican viewpoint is and has in recent memory been that of inaction: Reducing what the government does for its people, reducing regulations, and cutting taxes are all Republican policies that stress the government not actually working; in this way the Republican focus on politics over policy makes sense because if you don’t believe in government actually doing anything, it is a lot easier to be a politician than if you actually had to make working programs. The position that the federal government is universally wasteful makes little factual sense for the Republicans, as a majority of red states actually receive more federal assistance (through subsidies, federal assistance programs, and grants) then they pay in taxes, but it does make a powerful rhetorical point for the Republicans to use against the Democrats.
In many policy fights, the Democrats have a lot going for them: Democratic policy often has more connection to fact than Republican policy in the fields of economics (Keynesian Tax policy V. Reaganomics), science (Climate change), and general policy knowledge (Stimulus pulling a country out of depression, regulations being necessary, etc.). I do not argue that all Democratic policies are superior to Republican policies, rather that many of their major policy proposals are far more fact based then those supported by the Republicans.
Unfortunately, the Democrats are often politically handicapped by actually trying to care about improving the government and the lives of the “little people” (Read: us 99%), and the fact that the Democrats are abysmal at selling their policy. Proof of the inability of Democrats to sell their policy, no matter how beneficial is evident in the “Obamacare” fight just two years ago: The Democrats couldn’t sell the idea of giving access to health insurance to everybody at lower prices (Public option), nor could they make their opponents look bad for opposing outlawing the pre-existing condition clauses in health care. The Republicans used false, yet easily digestible, arguments such as “death panels” and the threat of “government takeovers” to fight the factual, but more complex, arguments of the Democrats. In addition to the differences in how the two sides sold their argument to the American public, the Republicans had massive amounts of health industry money to support them as well as the newly born “Tea Party” to act as ground troops. With a lack of convincing arguments, sloganeering, and ground mobilization on the part of the Democrats, they were unable to effectively combat the Republicans during the healthcare fight.
Not every Democratic politician is unable to make their case, as some Democrats can fight politically and very competently at that, (Frank, Weiner, Warren, Sanders, etc.) but a great majority of Democrats are completely unable to advocate for their positions on the same level as the Republicans. Barney Frank, Alan Grayson, Elizabeth Warren, and Raoul Grijalva in particular have shown great talent and skill in their presentation of progressive arguments for Democratic policies, yet unfortunately much of the rest of the party has been far less competent.
While I have yet to find any “unifying theory” as to why the Democrats are less effective than their Republican counterparts, but I believe it to be a combination of factors:
1. The Republicans begin in an advantageous position in many arguments as their default position is claim that government is broken; if you intentionally stall government, it is very easy to convince people that government doesn’t work. While the Democrats need to propose good policy, the Republicans can sit inside of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
2. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans commonly operate using easy to understand slogans such as “freedom” or “patriotism” to support themselves and “death panels” or “socialist” to attack their enemies; these slogans are almost always false, but they are reported on by the media and repeated by the candidates until they gain a life of their own. Obama utilized this tactic to great effect during 2008 with the slogan “hope”, but Democrats as a group do not commonly use this tactic.
3. Republicans fuse their religion into their politics which reduces the ability of the other party to attack for fear of insulting the religious.
4. The Republican Party discipline is far stronger than that of the Democrats. In most situations, the Republican leadership decides upon something, and then the rest of the party follows; there are very few dissenting voices or differences of belief, unless they are to the right. The Democratic Party is composed of political actors ranging in partisanship from Bernie Sanders (borderline socialist) to Joe Liebermann (middle right-wing). The Republican Party is composed of political actors ranging in ideology from Scott Brown (middle right) to Michele Bachmann (insane right).
I know that I am being overoptimistic in saying that I wish that there will be a day when we return to a political landscape where political games no longer overshadow the substance of policy, but I wish it just the same. I believe government to be a means of producing social good and benefiting everyone in society; an ideal which is incompatible with much of current politics. While I know that such a radical change in politics is unlikely, I would settle for a political landscape where a good idea is recognized regardless of partisan affiliation and compromise is no longer stopped through political gridlock on EVERY issue.