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He Who Hesitates September 4, 2009

Posted by Tim in Observations, Politics.

Just a follow-up on my post about the worrying polarization in politics of late.

It astounds me how quickly particular issues become the property of certain parties. If we were a multi-party state I might understand it, but we aren’t. The Democratic and Republican parties are massive, messy entities that embrace widely different cross-sections of America. Their platforms are not pure ideologically; instead, they are conglomerations of hodgepodge philosophies designed to work compromises and garner votes.

And the issues we face today are vast and intricate. Very few are satisfied with the status of the healthcare industry in America. Yet it is a hugely complex problem. What are the problems exactly? Is it that the system costs too much for the product it delivers? How do you measure that product – in pills popped or pounds dropped or some other arbitrary metric? Is the problem that the system does not include everyone? Or that it is means- and not needs-based? That is the tip of a very large iceberg. Why does the system cost too much? Why does it not deliver? Why are some priced out? All this could – and does – take hundreds of professional minds to make any sense of, and by then all the data is tinged by contrasting views of the role of health care, whether it is a right or a responsibility, etc. And all this chaos precedes the quagmire of solving whatever problems are identified.

There are other, equally complex issues.

How do we prosecute the war on terror? What balance is do we strike between physical protection and abstract ethics? Is fighting abroad denying safe havens or stirring hornets’ nests? Does dialogue with dogmatic nations defuse tensions or inspire fundamentalists’ fear that the Great Satan is laying a snare?

How do we win in Afghanistan? Is winning on the table? Does aid money solve problems or spawn corruption? Is our presence destabilizing or legitimizing?

What is our proper role with Russia, slowly wealth-building and newly belligerent? Do we make friends with China out of economic necessity or apply pressure for its outrageous human rights violations? What about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or Sudanese genocide, or Honduran constitutional sparring?

What do we do about the millions of illegal immigrants living and working in our country? Should they be legalized quickly, to better monitor and tax them? Should they be deported, upholding the rule of law while we amend the system to adjust to the new realities of foreign threats and porous borders?

We are faced today with situations that are beyond complex. Experts in the respective fields – drenched in information and histories and theories and data, often reading from the same intelligence reports – cannot reach consensus on any of the above. Political philosophy may come into play, but more often these disagreements are at the root about different paradigms, questions over the validity of this data over that data, reasonable but nebulous questions of whether this principle can be applied to that predicament. I spent four years getting a university education on Russia – studying it from its greatest art to its deepest history to the politics of its nearest neighbors. I have lived in Russia for a year, seen all sides of it. And yet the rhetorical question above about Russia is the one I find most puzzling, truly the most paralyzing.

So we have complex and dynamic problems that are being grappled with by pundits and politicians representing massive and messy parties. Any sane person would expect there to be a lot of thinking and head-scratching. One would expect that a Republican and Democrat would equally throw up their hands in bewilderment when staring down immigration bills or Honduran intelligence reports. One would expect that when the President says to Congress, “Fix health care,” that the next few months are filled with a murmured silence, a felt question mark.

And yet that is not what we get. The President makes an announcement and that afternoon Sean Hannity can tell you why (not if) it is the worst mistake since JFK rode in an open convertible. People show up angry and frightened about health care and the Speaker of the House calls them “unAmerican”. Good grief – the President decided to give a speech to schoolchildren and Republicans are prespeech branding it demagoguery while the education bureaucracy prespeech sends talking points to teachers like the classroom discussion question, “What did President Obama inspire you to do?” Never mind that the last President to do this was a Republican (Bush 41) and that Obama just might not inspire. We have reached knee-jerk partisanship to the extreme. I think the roots of it are in the phenomenon I described last time. But where do you find the axe to chop this monster down?

I make this pledge: He who hesitates, I will vote for. If there is a presidential, senate, or gubernatorial race, regardless of issue and regardless of the ultimate policy conclusion, I will give my vote to the candidate who convinces me that she or he is capable of stopping and thinking. Of gathering facts. The one who says, seriously and not as a cop-out, when popped a big question in a debate: “I need to think about that more before I take a position.” One who could even say, against the stream of their party’s rhetoric, “I like what the other side is proposing, and want to look over it closely. They might have found the best solution to this.”

Because politics and elections aren’t about picking up seats in the House. It’s about giving us the best government. And the best government is not some coincidental triangulation of power spat out by the last round of elections. The best government is one where smart, connected people put their brains and their connections’ brains together to wrestle with issues and subdue them. Who can agree to disagree, but much more crucially, can agree to agree. Who can let this week’s polls slip to the other guy’s party in the interest of doing what seems to be best for the nation. And who can convince across the aisle not because they can bandy words and call in favors, but because they have mulled over the reports and the briefings, and after honest searching, they too have become convinced.


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