The political vocation attracts “charlatans, jackals and romantics,” according to one observer. And the worst of these may be the romantics. Charlatans and jackals do mischief. Romantics — those in possession of absolute truth, who dream of “changing the world” and even human nature — can wreak lasting harm.
Maybe we should consider ourselves fortunate that most of our politicians today are mere charlatans and jackals. They may be guilty of peccadillos — a little misuse of campaign funds or a bit of tax evasion, along with run-of-the-mill sexual misdeeds. But we’re blessed by the relative absence of evangelical pied pipers who promise salvation and utopia and send anyone to the guillotine who doesn’t play along. Most of our politicians just try to cover their rears and con enough of voters to assure their re-election.
But does anyone think that today’s Republican or Democratic leaders are capable of making difficult decisions or of subordinating their political prospects to the country’s future? The debt limit debate was a charade of finger-pointing and posturing, with elected officials trotting out to the microphones as if auditioning for the “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” And how about a raspberry for the spendthrift president posing as a sober bean counter and “the only adult in the room”? Does anyone believe that this vaudeville show was a prelude to real reforms?
Conventional wisdom says that the problem today is the polarization of the two parties. According to this narrative, the debt limit fiasco was Act 1 in a great, historic debate about the proper size of government. But both parties are addicted to big government and reckless spending. According to a recent essay, they represent a “duopoly.” They’re not in competition but in collusion.
“Though rhetorically and theoretically at odds with one another, the two parties have managed to create a mostly unbroken set of policies and governance structures that benefit well-connected groups at the expense of the individual,” wrote Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch. They have divvied up the country into electoral fiefdoms, leaving them free to pursue unpopular, unfruitful policies.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then recent governments have been clinically bonkers. In spite of blatant failures in such enterprises as public education and the war on drugs, they keep doing the same things and arguing that spending more money will eventually bring about success. The idea of trying something new is abhorrent, because it might inconvenience special interests that make big campaign contributions.
The Republican-Democrat duopoly “divides up the spoils of a combined $6.4 trillion that is extracted each year from taxpayers at the federal, state and municipal levels,” wrote Gillespie and Welch. But the persistence of this setup doesn’t mean it’s immortal. Citing business duopolies such as Kodak and Fujifilm, Gillespie and Welch argue that “collusion against the interests of customers produces an inevitable revolt.” Polls indicate unprecedented mistrust and unhappiness with both parties. Both have lost “market share.” More voters are describing themselves as “independents.”
If the two-party system is to survive, it needs to be reinvented. Democrats and Republicans must rethink their ideologies in the face of new realities such as increasing longevity and global competition. They need to reconcile entitlement spending with economic growth and balance the demands of the public and the private sectors. Passing bills that no one reads and then doling out exemptions doesn’t count as problem-solving. It doesn’t bode well for the two-party system that it keeps reinforcing the impression of incompetence and resistance to change. Empowered by the Internet, independent-minded people are challenging the duopoly.
“Wherever both parties have colluded in erecting a roadblock to the desires of American voters, there are citizens groups creating angry and effective coalitions to confront the status quo,” wrote Gillespie and Welch. If Republican and Democratic parties lack the will and the imagination to change, they may go the way of the Dodo.