Race To The Bottom (Or The Middle)

By Daniel Larison

It never ceases to amaze me that the convergence of major candidates on some of the most important questions of policy can be described as evidence of so-called post-partisanship.  Gerald Seib writes today:

And clearly some of that is going on. But in this election year, the movement has deeper meaning.

These are two candidates whose histories suggest a commitment to break away from the partisanship that has helped gridlock Washington.

In the wake of the PATRIOT Act, the invasion of Iraq, the Protect America Act (and the FISA Amendments Act) and the Military Commissions Act, famous bipartisan achievements all, you might think that there would be a powerful desire for more gridlock and partisanship.  After eight years of unchecked executive abuses and bipartisan collaboration in illegal power grabs, you might suppose that less cooperation across the aisle would be in order.  What insiders and journalists complain about when they refer to gridlock are the glimmers of representative government, as different constituencies and interests compete with one another for limited resources and attempt to thwart contrary interests, and for the most part when there are great "bipartisan" pieces of legislation passed by Congress this means that both houses actively ignored or compromised the interests of their constituents.  Some of this dealmaking is an unavoidable part of the system, but a political culture that raises bipartisanship up as some sort of ideal is also responsible for fashioning the unrepresentative Washington consensus on national security, trade, immigration and foreign policy, among other things.
For that matter, there is nothing post-partisan about competitors in an election blurring the differences between them.  If anything, the fewer the substantive differences there are the more partisan the election becomes, as the election then truly has nothing whatever to do with policy debate and turns entirely on Red Team/Blue Team competition.  In a thoughtful post on arguments for and against supporting Obama, Daniel Koffler acknowledges this tribalism and embraces the idea:

Political affiliation is very little above and beyond tribal affiliation, as Jeffrey Friedman taught me. It’s extremely difficult, no matter how widely one reads or travels, to break free of the partisan commitments of one’s parents. 

In Koffler's case, this means an instinctive preference for the Democratic candidate.  Koffler is no doubt right that this is often the case, which makes for depressing commentary on the state of representative government.  It must say something about American culture, and probably nothing very flattering, that there seems to be a greater incidence of Americans who break with the religious affiliations of their parents than with their parents' partisan affiliation.  We seem to be disturbingly emancipated from the constraints of religious tradition, but in practice we seem to fall down in awe before the altar of party loyalty.  On another occasion, I may discuss why a sane society would want the exact opposite to be true.
There are different degrees of enthusiasm for one's team, ranging from the devotion of a real fan to the betting interest of the cynical observer, but there is great pressure pushing the voter towards or away from one of the major teams.  According to the mantras from the remedial civics instructors in our media, you are, of course, free to vote for anyone, but you ought not throw your vote away.  It would be in bad taste, for one thing, and rather embarrassing to admit--a bit like being a Tampa Bay Rays fan prior to this year--so it is much better to jump on the bandwagon of one of the well-known teams.  Of course, one of the fundamental reasons why alternative parties languish in obscurity is that they are poorly known, and they are poorly known because few people think it worthwhile to build up additional political parties to represent a greater variety of interests.  The major parties retain their enormous institutional and legal advantages because no one ever attempts to introduce meaningful competition into the system, and the rationale for not making the effort is that we really have only two options--and indeed, we will continue forever to have only two options so long as the attitude that we must resign ourselves to one of the two prevails among all those who know both options to be unsuitable.
There is something strange about the way that unenthusiastic McCain and Obama supporters rationalize voting for their respective candidates.  They do not really endorse most of the candidate's views, or they have grave reservations, but they judge the candidate not so much by his merits but by his opponent's greater flaws.  One wonders, though, how far down the candidate would have to go before he would make himself simply unacceptable.  Does he need to become even more appalling than the opponent, or is there some bare minimum threshold that he has to fall below before it becomes unthinkable to lend him any support?
As John Schwenkler notes in the current cycle, the standard that Obama has to pass, that of being preferable to John McCain, is so low that it isn't any challenge at all.  The question of whether the candidate would actually represent your interests is never asked, as if to acknowledge tacitly that the possibility of representation is so remote that the question is useless or outmoded.
Cross-posted at Eunomia