“Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” (Really? Do you have to?)

April 24, 2004

Kevin Drum comments today on an article set to appear tomorrow in the Washington Post arguing that despite the fact a large majority of people describe themselves as "moderate", political polarization has significantly increased and "political segregation"–i.e., people living and working disproportionately with people of similar political views–has also significantly increased.

Mr. Drum seems to take the latter finding as true and people’s self-described moderation as basically self-delusion based on comparing themselves to their increasingly segregated peer group. I’m not so sure, and am willing to take people at their word when they describe themselves as moderate. That is, I don’t believe that most people truly want to choose sides solidly on either the liberal or conservative ends of the spectrum. Rather, the problem is that they are forced to choose sides because in what passes for political debate today compromise has ceased being anything worth having. Instead of compromise being what is should be—both sides getting most of what they want—it has become both sides getting none of what they want beyond the other side not getting everything it wanted.

Money is really not the critical stumbling block to designing compromises where most everyone leaves basically happy. The real stumbling block is the Apocalyptic fervor (often figurative, but alas, sometimes literal) that colors the thinking of the partisans of both sides. To say the least, the belief that the Second Coming is either metaphorically or truly imminent isn’t conducive to sound public policy. Or, to quote Yeats’s "The Second Coming", which says it infinitely better than I ever could, such beliefs curse us to live in times when:

The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The gigantic Medicare prescription benefit bill is an excellent case in point. It’s stunning in and of itself that a majority of Congress would even consider spending a whopping 400 billion (now likely 550 billion) dollars in the next decade on the issue, for this is an amount roughly 4-6 times greater than the expected outlay that actually goes to defray the estimated drug costs of the expected 40-50 million Medicare recipients in this time (see Mark Schmitt’s excellent back-of-the-envelope calculation). It’s even more stunning that the "compromise" bill that passed not only doesn’t solve the prescription drug problem, but also manages to leave all sides disgusted.

This all underlines the necessity for thinking about a true grand bargain between liberals and conservatives (see the reading list in my last post) so that compromise can once again mean both sides get most of what they want, and we don’t all need to be conscripts in ideological wars begun by zealots.

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