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Posted by on Mar 1, 2010 in Politics | 12 comments

Centrists, Principles and “Men of the Earth”

One thing that I’ve noticed in the blogsphere is how many people don’t like “deal-makers.”

Deal-makers are a vanishing breed. Some were centrists, but there could also be people who firmly on one ideological perspective or another. The late Ted Kennedy was a fierce liberal, but he was willing more often than not to work with conservatives to get the job done.

But in reading both in passing and more indepth, you get the sense that those politicians who make deals with the other side are people to be reviled. Ross Douthat, is a young conservative that has come up with some great policies that I believe could benefit the Republican Party in the long run. Nevertheless, he tends to look derisively at centrist Republicans seeing them as persons without principle. This is what he wrote in a piece last year after Arlen Specter’s defection:

The larger species to which he belonged — Republicanus Rockefellus, the endangered Northeastern moderate — likewise has little to offer a party in distress. Indeed, if you listen carefully to high-profile Yankee moderates like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee, who fanned out across op-ed pages and TV shows last week to bemoan their marginalization, it seems as though they don’t even understand their own political situation, let alone the Republican Party’s.

The Northeastern moderates tend to style themselves as fiscal conservatives, spinning a narrative in which they’re the victims of a doctrinaire social conservatism and its litmus tests. But many of them are just instinctive liberals who happen to have ancestral ties to the Grand Old Party. Chafee fit that bill; so did former Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, who amassed a distinctly left-wing record after he bolted the Republican Party in 2001 to become an “independent.” For that matter, so does the retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, a New England native and Republican appointee who often gets described as a moderate, but boasts the jurisprudence of a reliable liberal.

Others, like Collins and Snowe and (until last week) Specter, are simply horse-traders and deal-cutters, whose willingness to cross party lines last month to vote for $800 billion dollars in deficit spending tells you most of what you need to know about their supposed fiscal conservatism. They’re politically savvy but intellectually vacuous. Their highest allegiance isn’t to limited government. It’s to meeting the party in power halfway, while making sure that the dollars keep flowing to their constituents back home.

As I wrote back then, I agreed that the stimulus bill was a rather bad piece of legislation. That said the three GOP Senators who backed it, tried to make deals to make it less bad. Douthat assails the three for not being true fiscal conservatives, but seemingly ignores the other more “loyal partisans” who basically did the same thing for years when the GOP was in power.

Douthat along with writers like Daniel Larison, see these deal-making centrists as lacking any principle instead of self interest. Now, in the case of Arlen Specter, there is some truth to that. Specter is nothing more than a rank opportunist that tries to save his own skin when the going gets rough. But I think it is a little too harsh to say that all centrists or those who want to make deals are some how defective and lack any sense of principle.

Politicians aren’t defective, but the public is.

The problem here is that we the people, liberals and conservatives, tend to think we are the only ones around. We live around people who are like us politically and ideologically and tend to look at the other side as either delusional or evil. So when we elect our representatives to the statehouse or to Washington, we expect them to be partisans and not politicians.

While I respect bloggers like Douthat and conservative bloggers, they are part of the problem. They forget that in a democracy, politicians have to deal with competing interests. What politicians are called to do is to mediate between those cacaphony of interests and desires and produce legislation that benefits the most people. It means that politicos have to learn to tolerate and compromise. This something a blogger sitting in their apartment don’t ever have to face.

Would I love some conservative political ideas to become policy? Sure. But I also know that I live with liberals who are as much Americans as I am. Their voices have to be heard and I leave it up to my elected officials to work something out that I can live with and so can my liberal husband.

It’s interesting elections are starting to be seen as mandates handed down from God. Both Democrats and Republicans see political victories as some kind of divine sign that they can do anything they want-after all, didn’t that election justify their viewpoint? It’s symptom of a public that is walled off from other ideas and ideologies.

In 2008, Bill Bishop wrote the book, The Big Sort. In it, he explained that over the last 30 years, American society has sorted itself along ideological lines. We now live in like minded communities and that has had an impact on Washington. One those impacts is how it has taken out the dealmakers who made legislation possible. He uses the example of the Nuer Tribe in Africa to talk about the role American politicians used to play:

Nuer tribes were constantly crossing paths, and so they could easily fall into conflict over lost animals and scarce forage. Professor Evans-Prichard wrote in the 1940s about the intricate ways the Nuer encouraged cooperation and resolved conflicts.

The Nuer put special faith in a group of arbiters known as “men of the earth.” Men of the earth had no formal powers. They couldn’t arrest people or make arbitrary decisions. But the Nuer granted these people a kind of local authority to settle disputes. If a fight broke out, a man of the earth could stop the conflict by running between the combatants and hoeing a line in the dirt. If a tribal member was killed in a fight, a man of the earth arbitrated compensation to be paid by the winner to the dead man’s family.

The “man of the earth” was a deal-maker, a negotiator, a compromiser. He was the person given the job of representing all the conflicting interests of the tribes.

A man of the earth was a politician.

He then goes on to explain what has happened in America since the 1970s:

Over the last 30 years, most communities have grown either more Democratic or more Republican. Through an incremental process of migration and self-selection, people have clustered in like-minded neighborhoods, clubs, and churches.

Migration had consequences. Legislative districts grew more lopsided, and they elected more-partisan representatives. Politicians no longer mediated competing interests in their districts. They represented increasingly one-sided constituencies that grew more extreme in their ideological isolation.

The meaning of politics changed. Voters didn’t want men of the earth. They wanted partisans.

And he’s right. We the people don’t want deal makers, “men of the earth.” We want partisans. This is probably the main reasons that moderates of both parties have been squeezed out of politics. As the deal makers leave the scene and are replaced by partisans, the political process grinds to a halt.

Bishop notes that the Nuer tended to see that they had the ground between them in common:

The earth was what the Nuer had in common. If locusts swarmed or a drought persisted, every tribe suffered. When the grass was thick, they all prospered. They were called “men of the earth,” anthropologist Max Gluckman wrote, because “the earth, undivided as the basis of society, (symbolized) not individual prosperity, fertility, and good fortune, but the general prosperity, fertility, and good fortune on which individual life depends.”

What do Americans have in common today? Not much. Oh, we share a lot with our neighbors, with the people at our church. Too much, in fact. But we don’t know fellow citizens just a few counties over. It takes a “social experiment” in some parts to imagine how it would be to live as a member of a different political party.

A politicians do have an ideological background that should be around to inform their decision-making. But at the end of the day, Democrats and Republicans have to do what is good for all of the nation, not just those who agree with them.

At some point, we have to start seeing the deal makers not as traitors, but as trying to be do what they do best: trying to take our various voices and make them one.

Crossposted at Republicans United.

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  • shannonlee

    Has anyone ever moved into a community because of its political ideology? I can’t even imagine taking that into consideration. I think district become more lopsided because they are gerrmandered that way….not because a majority of Americans are trying to live with like minded people.

    As for deal makers….we have plenty of them. They make millions of dollars by paying off our politicians with millions of dollars.

    • Don Quijote

      Has anyone ever moved into a community because of its political ideology?

      No, but people will take the quality of the school district, the cost of housing and the ethnicity of their neighbors under consideration, and once those three factors are taken under consideration you end up with very homogeneous communities…

    • $199537

      Has anyone ever moved into a community because of its political ideology?

      I was listening to an interview about Bloomberg a couple of weeks ago and someone mentioned New York City was 87% Democrat. To have a majority like that has to require some degree of intentional migration and retention of like-minded people. I doubt many people move to NYC thinking there are specifically a lot of Democrats there, but rather that there are a lot of people there with similar values and beliefs.

      • NYC is ethnically diverse. Republicans not so much. No surprise there.

  • Axel Edgren

    You don’t have any way of easing the tension or deescalating the politic. There is too much power in the hands of the voting public, and too much ignorance and laziness among same.

    Therefore, politicians have a lot to gain and also have a lot of downtime between elections to bite themselves into the mainstream and get connections, while fluffing the public with moronic PR, which invariably works, especially the consequences of getting a bad politician are dire – people will stay with the status quo. So the civic system doesn’t mesh with the society – your current way of distributing power is bad for you and does not work. The only reason democrats aren’t running as roughhouse as the republicans did last time is because congressional democrats are a) slightly more responsible/less religious and b) divided by the fact that some of them aren’t corporatists.

    The power and influence in America is not allotted in a meritocratic way. Well, corporations that don’t practice meritocracy also fail. A nation that has Inhofe, Lieberman and Bachmann in high offices and climate change and evolution in the iron sights will invariably fail, hopefully setting an example for nations that are on the wrong path but still have time to change.

    It starts with the public, or it doesn’t start at all.

    Either you will allow your politicians to get a measured HC reform bill, or you will suffer for it, collectively. As long as people get what they deserve, I’m fine with what happens.

    Far more problematic is American ignorance regarding the climate, seeing as your poor decisions in that sphere will affect other, more rational people – I’m not entirely sure if “Killing millions of brown people so that Desteny can be driven to the Jonas concert in a comfy car” is like entirely compatible with the enlightened teachings that are supposed to be the foundation of your country.

  • dduck12

    Thanks, Dennis. Go Nuer.

  • peten

    And that’s why we call him Ross “don’t” Douthat. What the public want is not so much strong partisans, but people of principle – honest politicians. The corruption of the political class by moneyed interests has led to a situation where only the partisans can be trusted, because anyone in the middle has a vote to sell – Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, … I’d list some Republicans but there are no Republican centrists.

    • Axel Edgren

      “I’d list some Republicans but there are no Republican centrists.”

      I’d like to second that, but while I can’t agree with any opposition to passing the reform bill, I can’t be sure every GOP congressperson actually only cares about gaining politically.

  • CStanley

    While I agree with some of the article’s point about increasing polarization, I think part of the current unpopularity of the ‘men of the earth’ is that they’re not performing their role well. Sometimes dealmaking really is rank self-service, and that’s mostly what I see happening in recent times when bills are modified.

    If those tribesmen had started taking a cut of the compensation paid out to aggrieved families, for instance, the tribe probably would have stopped trusting that he was being an honest arbiter whose function was to deescalate tensions among his fellow tribesman.

  • “Has anyone ever moved into a community because of its political ideology? I can’t even imagine taking that into consideration.”

    We’re about to move, and the political shape of the community was absolutely a factor — not the only one, mind you, but definitely up there on the list.

    • CStanley

      My guess is that most people don’t directly consider it but it ends up factoring in because of lifestyle considerations (people of similar political orientation often having other characteristics in common which would affect the character of a community.)

  • BarkyBree

    Wow, very good article. A few notes, however:

    — you cannot exclude the media from the equation. Over the past 10-15 years, the level of rancor amongst media outlets has grown and taken in the people with it. Anger and vitriol attracts an audience, and that audience becomes more vitriolic and angry in response. Add in misinformation, and you have a terrible combination.

    — sticking on the media for a moment, it’s so much easier to find your own niche news & opinion source. In the past, we all watched the same media, read the same newspapers. Now you can find that one outlet that fits your perspective exactly and stick with it. This results in a very narrow point of view. It would be one thing if we ALL listened to different sources (right-wing, left-wing, centrist, or strict factual), then we might learn something. Instead, we stick with only that source that we like and that makes everyone narrow-minded.

    — I hate the euphemism “deal making”. Sounds like the shady back-room kind. I like “compromise”. Compromise built this nation. Has it’s problems (like the infamous Missouri Compromise), but it’s a generally a good thing.

    — don’t discount representational districts DESIGNED to favor one party or the other. It’s not all migration, it’s gerrymandering. I’d like to see purely independent commissions drawing districts based entirely on geography and demographics (urban vs. rural) without any political influence at all.

    — finally, I hate the notion that centrists are “unprincipled”. I absolutely have principles. I want justice, I want economic growth, I want a country I can be proud of, and I don’t want a system where one type of person can screw over the other type. It seems that the partisans are perfectly willing to do THAT.

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