Politics is a bit like football.
There's a huge stadium, with the Serious Players on the field, the Main Stream Media in the press box, tanked up rowdies in the nosebleed seats, plutocrats and their rented companions in their skyboxes, and Vegetarians outside playing a tag football game no one pays attention to.
This being real life, Serious Players are supposed to confront our major challenges, the problems and opportunities we all face. And the Main Stream Media is supposed to address the issues of the day. But the Serious Players seem more interested in scoring points while the Main Stream Media is more interested in tallying penalties. Ordinary people don't like the focus on winning and losing – at least, when pollsters from the Mainstream media go walk among the seats, talking to ordinary Americans eating hotdogs and watching American Idol on their cellphones, those ordinary Americans complain about how politicians never actually do anything. The Mainstream Media responds by talking about bipartisanship. (They've been talking about bipartisanship for years.) Then they go back to their breathless sports-style reporting of who's up and who's down and what the handicappers say.
But perhaps the Mainstream Media is right. Perhaps politics is a sport. We do suspect this – look at all the sports analogies in politics – but it may be more than a cliche. Politics may involve the same psychological and social mechanisms that sports do, and may even have evolved from primitive sports.
Many primitive tribes engage in forms of primitive "warfare". Two villages confront each other over a contested orchard: there's a lot of yelling, posturing, and occasional spear-throwing, leading to someone getting killed, and then a truce for the funeral, followed by more confrontations, etc. Or a group of (usually male) villagers might sneak into another village's territory and kill one of those villagers. Both forms of "warfare" appear very ancient: troops of monkeys battle for females or over turf, and chimpanzees have been observed raiding and killing members of rival troops.
As for us, archeologists have found a lot of bones of stone age people who died violently.
But troops and villages are small; once urban societies arose, neighboring villages had to find other ways to resolve their differences. (In addition, the societies needed to build a sense of community, while the cities needed to get young men into fighting trim when cities warred against their neighbors.) Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hindus, Chinese, Mayans, and of course Greeks and Romans had organized sports.
Historically, sports and politics seem intertwined: many Greek heroes seem to migrate back and forth between the battlefield and the Games, and politicians from Alcibiades to Nero played the games (Alcibiades entered chariot teams – as did Nero, who actually drove a chariot).
One of the most notorious examples of political sports was chariot racing in Constantinople. The races were between competing teams (named for their colors), and the antics of the Greens and the Blues make today's Democrats, Republicans, and British soccer fans look tame. (In 532 AD, Green and Blue fans joined – during a race, of course – in five days of politically motivated riots that nearly scared the Emperor Justinian off his throne.)
For the last five thousand years, more and more of us have lived in these cosmopolitan societies consisting of many diverse groups that would – in the wild – be tempted to make war on each other. But the societies can't put up with that, so raids were forbidden and ersatz confrontations were organized around competitions between (largely male) youngsters. Pacifists would have to admit that this is better than the alternative, but there is a problem.
Competitive sport becomes the model for politics. Football fans may romanticize about the lessons of life learned on the gridiron, but it was a leading neoconservative who wrote of one notoriously ferocious game,
Charles Krauthammer seems to have written about Bobby Fischer without irony or considering the possibility that he was looking in some kind of mirror. Sports may channel aggression, but the canyon it carves affects the society as a whole. Habits of thought are habit-forming, and Krauthammer himself is a notable example of someone whose political thought is more appropriate for the gridiron than running a government.
[Chess] is not just monomaniacal and abstract, but its arena is a playing field on which the other guy really is after you. The essence of the game is constant struggle against an adversary who, by whatever means of deception and disguise, is entirely, relentlessly, unfailingly dedicated to your destruction. It is only a board, but it is a field of dreams for paranoia.
He is not alone. How many of us judge a proposal by the color of the proposer's shirt?
We've heard from the grown-ups. "Politics," said the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, "is the art of the possible." And that art, wrote novelist Leonard Wibberley, is to "snatch compromise from the jaws of disaster." "Compromise," remarked Gerald Ford during his vice presidential nomination hearings, "is the oil that makes government go." This is true of the Senate, wrote Senator James Eli Watson: "Every legislator understands that no measure of importance ever could be passed without this give-and-take policy being practiced to the limit." It may be true that Compromise (with its companions Prejudice and Treachery) was one of Cyrano de Bergerac's great enemies in the end, but de Bergerac was not a grown-up.
The traditional view of compromise is that people are concerned with their own problems; high-minded concern for the public interest is difficult to maintain, especially since most people tend to confuse the public interest with their own. If one group of people, even the group of people in power, pursue their own aims on their own, the rest of society will be indifferent or even hostile, and the pursuit will collapse or lead to a wreck. Only by getting a working majority on board will a great project succeed, but that means effecting compromise among the players.
The obvious retort is that there are compromises and there are compromises. We can take two examples from our own sordid past.
As it turned out, slavery and the cotton gin made the lower Mississippi the wealthiest part of the country, and instead of easing slavery into oblivion, this compromise became the first of a sequence of increasingly embarrassing compromises – most notably the compromises of 1820 and of 1850 - that kept the whole mess going until the 1860 issue of Texan slavery led to an explosion. The only reasonable defense that anyone has ever come up with for the original compromise is the question: well, what should the convention have done?
- One of the famously good compromises was Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of New Year's Day, 1863.
But it did not free many actual slaves, and that was the compromising aspect of it. It applied only to slaves in states in rebellion; slaves in loyal states remained in chains. But despite complaints about the compromising aspects of the Proclamation, it did the job Lincoln wanted the proclamation to do.
- It transformed the American Civil War from a struggle to save the union – a struggle that had become a little lame, politically – into a struggle to abolish slavery, which inspired many people across the nation and opened up more resources.
- It discouraged interventionists in Europe, who had supported the Confederacy but who did not want to be seen as pro-slavery.
- It resolved the legal question of what the union should do with "contraband" slaves who had escaped from the Confederacy (answer: recruit them into the Union Army).
- It laid the groundwork for the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.
- One of the notoriously bad compromises was Article One, Section Two, Clause Three of the U. S. Constitution, directing that House seats and federal taxes be applied to the states proportionate to their populations, not counting native Americans and counting "other persons" at three fifths each. Those "other persons" were the slaves: southern delegates at the Constitutional Convention insisted that slavery not be abolished by the Constitution (a popular idea among high-minded northern delegates). But in the grand tradition of having one's cake and eating it too, they also insisted on maximizing southern representation in Congress in order to be able to collectively defeat anti-slavery legislation. The resulting compromises were:
The compromise looked good at the time: all the overt pro-slavery stuff would expire or be subject to amendment after 1808, and many pundits thought that slavery was a dinosaur that would be on its way to extinction by 1808.
- In Article 1, Section 2, each slave would count as 3/5 of a person when drawing Congressional districts and apportioning taxes. With its cotton and tobacco, the South could afford to pay the heavier taxes.
- In Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1, slaves could be imported into the U. S. until 1808, and until then, slave importation would be taxed. Again, the South paid extra for slavery.
- In Article 5, on amendments, exempted Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 from amendment and, perhaps as a sop to money-conscious northerners, Clause 4 (on taxes derived from Clause 1).
The burning question is often whether the pursuit was worth the compromise. Winston Churchill said that he'd form an alliance with the Devil against Hitler, and indeed he did form an alliance with Stalin. It was a pretty awful compromise, but it was probably the best that could have been done at the time, and far worse than the alternative.
So there is the traditional argument for compromise: it is the only way to get things done. Historically, the alternatives are paralysis and terror. Paralysis because the various groups manage to sabotage all projects, and nothing gets done; think of Weimar Germany before Hitler became Chancellor. Terror because one group gets into power and acts as it pleases; think of Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety. Notice that neither paralysis nor terror actually lasts very long, although they can alternate back and forth for a while.
But there is another reason for compromise. Politics is the means by which society finds solutions to common problems, and the search for solutions is more effective if a more diverse group of people search for those solutions. Consider the economic problems we face today. Despite vehement claims from Economics departments, economics is not really a science; all the traditional schools of thought in economics are ideological positions supported by anecdotal data. But we need to fix our economy, even if our economists don't really know what to do. So what to do?
"There's a right answer and a wrong answer to all our problems," quipped Art Hoppe (in his parody of Richard Nixon), "and the solution lies somewhere in between." The way to find solutions is to look for them, often in places that ideologically homogeneous searchers would not look: if all the solution-finders have the same point of view, the result is merely an exercise in groupthink.
No president faced economic problems more daunting than those that confronted Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a pragmatic opportunist with no ideological commitments. When confronted with a problem, he would get a panel of leading experts with a range of views on the subject, and tell them to present him with a consensus proposal. This has been a model for problem-solving executives ever since.
An effective search requires people of many divergent points of view. There are two reasons for this.
It's become conventional wisdom in business and engineering management that when a company wants a solution to a problem, its team of searchers should be relatively diverse. This appears to be true across a spectrum ranging from software engineers to volunteer groups; for a theoretical overview, see Hong and Page's somewhat mathematical analysis, and for a description of how a heterogeneous team works, see Fabian Robinson's paper in NESUG 2008. Politicians and pundits are also more likely to find usable solutions if there is a diversity of opinion among the searchers.
- In computer science, a program that searches for a solution to a problem conducts its search through a search space. Frequently, there's just an array of specifications to satisfy, and one has to hunt for the resolution that fulfills those specifications reasonably well.
For an economic or social problem, there is also a huge search space. Confronted with any problem, there are many possible solutions, some better than others, some familiar (searchers will have preconceptions about these) and some strange (searchers won't know what to make of these). Humans being lazy, a group of people with just one or two points of view will be tempted to pick up and then squabble over one or two familiar solutions. A diverse group (preferably with some ornery searchers) will hunt for novel solutions and wind up with a greater range of options.
- Even if there are many useful solutions out there, somewhere (and often we just want some reasonably good solution), the searchers have to recognize it as a useful solution. If the searchers share just one or two points of view, there will be a tendency to ignore any solution that does not fit searcher preconceptions. A man hears what he wants to hear. More to the point, we tend to observe what we are prepared to observe. On the other hand, if the searchers have many points of view, searchers will be motivated (out of inspiration or irritation) to notice a wider variety of solutions.
One problem surfaced in the paper on volunteer groups, and seems to be quite common: although heterogeneous groups are more successful, they seem less so to the participants. All these strange people in the group, with their strange ideas, at best wasting our time. Francois Revel claimed that although almost everyone values pluralism as an ideal, few people actually like dealing with diverse groups of people. And while many people find a wide variety exhilarating (why else live in New York?), actually working with a different sorts of people can be discombobulating.
If politics were about solving problems, then the typical reaction to a major figure taking a contrary position (with respect that that person's political party) would be open-minded interest. After all, this is a problem we are facing, and if a credible person sees a difficulty or an opportunity, we should listen. If a prominent feminist takes a pro-life position, or if a Zionist pundit supports an Palestinian proposal, or if a stern moralist praises today's youth, the novelty alone should make ears perk up. Taking a contrary position risks one's credibility, so if this contrarian feels this strongly about it, perhaps we should listen to find out what this contrarian has to say.
But that's not the usual reaction.
In politics, participants tend to regard the game as a confrontation between good and evil. Certainly the abortion and Israel controversies presume this: that's practically the only thing both sides are willing to agree on. So a contrarian is a traitor. In fact, moderates are often dismissed with disgust: they aren't strong enough, or committed enough, or they're Red (or Blue) In Name Only.
As far as fans are concerned, when those RINOs and BINOs get together, they aren't there to solve problems. They're there to sell us out. That is how it plays in the cowboy movies: the whiny guy in the gray hat goes to work things out with the black-hatted villain and winds up giving away the farm. While we know that life is not a cowboy movie, cowboy movies are part of our folklore, and folklore is how we think. In fact, the reason cowboys are part of our folklore is that cowboys resonate with instincts as old as our ancestors in the trees.
And what we think is that a RINO or a BINO is not one of us, and that an honorable opponent is better than a knife in the back.
So here we sit, enduring protracted paralysis with brief spurts of chaos. All because we are good and they are evil and problem-solving is less important than victory – for some true believers, problem-solving is worse than defeat, for at least an honorable defeat is a moral victory. If we are lucky the problem solves itself, one way or another...
-- 6 March 2013