Crossing the great divide

Nick Anderson’s cartoon pretty effectively sums up the competition driving Texas politics. Republicans are fighting frantically among themselves for control of Texas government–even though they’re headed down the same road.

The Two Party System

The division in Republic party’s state convention (“Convention shows GOP’s fractured unity “) is only the latest evidence that factionalism is the dominant theme of American politics. Republican Bryan Hughes filed for Speaker, launching another challenge to House Speaker Joe Straus. I’ve argued before that this is largely a matter of political muscle flexing. Too many people care more about the perception of power than making progress. It reminds me of watch children fight over who gets to ride in the front seat. Someone always refuses to enjoy where they’re going because they didn’t get to sit exactly where they wanted.

Of course, this isn’t unique to the Texas GOP. The failed recall effort in Wisconsin illustrates that unions and other liberal groups can be every bit as disruptive and groups within the conservative coalition. The Democrats were very good about dividing up in the 1960s and 1970s when the anti-war purists attempted to purge the party of others. People were physically thrown out of caucus meetings. During this time the labor unions, civil right groups, and anti-war forces divided the Democratic party and helped contribute to the rise of the GOP. Today’s Republican politics looks very much like the petty squabbling of those Democrats–and that should be enough to alarm Republicans.

Wearing blindersThe Citizens United case and other changes in campaign finance have only encouraged individual corporations or labor unions to go their own way and advocate for themselves more narrowly. Today, individual political action committees, corporation, or other narrow interests are more free to work individually and pursue their own self-interest without working with others. Special interest donors and self-interested voters see no need to compromise with others since the campaign allowed them to work alone. Campaigning today provides fewer opportunities for people with similar interests to sit down, discuss their differences, and realize that these other views have some legitimacy. The people who think the Speaker Straus or Dewhurst are closet Democrats or RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) are demonstrating what happens when you never take off your political blinders.

This only works until representatives elected by these narrow interests get together in the Legislature and begin to craft public policy. Thus, the first time many constituencies see a need to compromise is when the work has moved to the legislature. At that point, it is easy to blame the legislator’s integrity or bargaining skills when you don’t get exactly what you want. Unfortunately for the narrow-minded fringes in politics, our political system demands compromise. The US Constitution is itself a compromise (think about the integrity behind the three-fifth compromise) and failing to understand that sets you up for a lifetime of disappointment. You’re not getting exactly what you want because that’s what James Madison and the rest of the founders embedded in the Constitution.

The problem is compounded by a lack of understanding of the consequences of public policy. For example, many groups demanded more accountability and less bureaucracy even though accountability creates bureaucracy. The “small government” advocates today calling for the end of state-mandated high-stakes testing in public schools represent the same interests that created those tests originally (and continue to push new forms of “accountability”).

The fact that so many Republicans felt that the Legislature just wasn’t conservative enough despite the huge Republican majority is a bigger indictment of voters’ expectation than legislators’ performance. It’s silly to believe that Rick Perry and the huge Republican majority were not as conservative enough to represent Texas and that many more cuts in government programs could be made. Such complaining may be good fun at parties and occasionally therapeutic, but voters need to understand that many of their expectations are not realistic.

Unfortunately, Texas and the nation lacks leaders brave enough to talk honestly with people about the tough decisions. Politicians don’t like telling people to grow up because it costs them votes and contributions.

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