The Problem With Politics

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by Peter Suderman

The health-care reform effort has not gone smoothly, and liberals aren't happy. With Democratic majorities in the White House, the House, and the Senate, what could possibly be going on? Matt Taibbi seems to capture the liberal mood when he writes that Obama's waffling on the public plan amounts to a "pre-emptive surrender," which he calls "disgusting."

Indeed, many on the left seem sickened by the show: Congressional liberals are threatening revolt if reform doesn't include a government-administered plan. Eugene Robinson is not pleased with Obama's politically-driven decisions: "Giving up on the public option might be expedient. But we didn't elect Obama to be an expedient president. We elected him to be a great one." Even Jon Stewart is ribbing Obama for not doing enough to maintain order and push the complete liberal reform agenda through. 

Is all the chaos the result of a failure of leadership? Perhaps, but Obama's hands-off approach is a direct response to Clinton's aggressive tactics in 1994. That didn't work so well either. 

No, I don't think this is a failure of leadership so much as a feature of democratic politics -- and a reminder of how unpleasant and unsatisfying to nearly everyone the business of politics can be. 

Democratic politics is a messy business. It's disorganized and frantic and unpredictable and frustrating. Politics is a matter of shouting, and dissent, and deal-making, and strategy, and slippery rhetoric, and compromise. It is not a matter of deciding on the "right" policy and then making it so -- even when your party controls the White House, the House, and the Senate.

This is especially true when making substantial changes in the operations of a sixth of the economy -- a sector that potentially affects not only people's daily lives, but their very survival. 

It's not that people enjoy this; in fact, it seems to turn a lot of people off. As Robert Putnam wrote, “Most men are not political animals. The world of public affairs is not their world. It is alien to them -- possibly benevolent, more probably threatening, but nearly always alien." But to a large extent, the spasms and outbursts and irritations that come with the political process are inevitable -- no matter who's in charge, no matter what the polls and pundits and politicians say.  

Taking Winston Churchill's notion that democracy is the worst form of government except all others that have been tried as axiomatic, it seems to me that there are a number of potential responses: Engage earnestly with the system, sit things out, or, as H.L. Mencken suggests, lean back and chuckle grimly as the farce replays itself over and over again.  

Given my libertarian streak, I'd also add a final thought: The way to avoid the maddening convulsions of politics isn't to change them, or rise above them, or move past them, or transform them, or whatever the trendy term of art is on any given day. It's to avoid them -- and reduce their power to hold sway over how we live. And the more decisions about our lives and welfare we put in the hands of politicians, the harder that will be to do. 

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