Against Political Cynicism

(I originally made the comments that follow as a response to this post on the 2Blowhards blog. IMO the kind of “they’re all the same” cynicism the Blowhards post represents is counterproductive. The political choices offered to voters need not be optimal to be useful. Politics is the art of the possible, as the old aphorism puts it, and progress is usually incremental. And that’s as it should be — big changes tend to be associated with big disasters. Excessive cynicism on the part of voters can lead to demoralization and premature giving up. Better to maintain a modest level of cynicism, together with modest expectations of what can be accomplished via politics, and stay in the game. Vote for the least-bad candidate and don’t look back. Don’t assume that the system is flawed merely because it doesn’t offer you choices that you would like better.)

There is ample opportunity in modern American life. The society isn’t perfect. So what. Big government is generally too intrusive and destructive; and there is indeed a political class, many of whose interests conflict with those of other Americans. But modern Americans have so many options in life that it’s difficult to find much real oppression here, especially in comparison to current and historical reality elsewhere.

It’s similar WRT politics. Our two-party system is lousy, except compared with the realistic alternatives. If you look beyond the platitudes and examine actual policies there are profound differences between the major parties. They provide clear if imperfect choices in many areas: taxes, regulation, litigation reform, foreign and defense policy, health-care reform, education, judicial appointments, etc. It’s foolish to expect to solve the world’s problems via politics, but it is possible to improve our society incrementally by making sensible electoral choices between bad and less-bad alternatives. That’s how representative government works, and it’s about the best anyone can hope for in humanely managing the affairs of large groups of people.

One thing I don’t understand is why Democratic activists are so interested in getting only the Republicans to change. The Left might be more effective politically if it made its own candidates and policies more attractive to voters. Currently the Republicans have a lot of ideas but lack effective competition from Democrats that might constrain some of the worst ones. Meanwhile the Dems are fuming in reactionary self-absorption, refusing to change, blaming the electorate for their own uncompetitiveness, and further alienating voters by trying to impose their views via the courts, deceitful public-relations-type manipulation, and “direct action.”

UPDATE: These comments by Arnold Kling are worth reading. (via Instapundit)

11 thoughts on “Against Political Cynicism”

  1. Ample comparison of the antiquated two-party political system. I see where the conservatives would like to change the thinking of the liberals, but they are a bit more subtle in their machinations, that’s all.
    Check out what I wrote earlier today on wrapping up the two national conventions on my blog.

    Tom P.

  2. “the antiquated two-party political system” — Nope. Far from it. Yet another one of the ingenious features of the American political system, which forces politicians to seek and find a centrist position which is shared by a majority of voters. A source of political stability, which is the foundation of any economic progress or personal freedom.

  3. Well said. I also think it might be useful to experiment with a more open primary system. In Maryland, if you are registered as a Republican, you may only vote in the Republican primary. Ditto Democrat, ditto some third party.

    Allowing people to cross party lines early on might encourage candidates to appeal to a broader range of people early on, instead of appealing to the party-activist/party-base.

    I think it would result in a lot less political polarization and encourage cross-fertilization of ideas.

  4. Michael, if it were tried in one state, we could see how it played out. There it is, federalism, yet another ingenious feature … .

  5. Many states, e.g. Texas, already have open primaries. George W. came out of that system. Personally, I do not believe he is a ideologue and is willing to compromise. (Indeed, as some have claimed on this blog, too willing, especially when it comes to expanding government.)

  6. Jonathan,

    Allow me to suggest possible rainbows behind the dark clouds you paint as the antiquated the two-party system (not cynical at all!). The first observation is that it is not accurate to view party politics in the US as necessarily consisting of two opposed and polar parties. Think instead of two intersecting circles that represent a wide range of positions and coalition.

    The origins of todays Democratic Party an election where a candidate winning a majority of the popular vote and the most electoral votes, Andrew Jackson, lost the election to John Quincy Adams due to a deal struck with a third candidate, Henry Clay. This led to the idea and development of a stronger (the Rep.-Dems was the other) Party system that was organized Nationally, managed locally, and standardized its polling materials… and in which there was enough flexibility in the platform to allow the Party to become an umbrella for more than one candidate or region or States ideas (Jackson was at the fore of the “second generation” of the revolution that Jefferson noted would make or break our system)

    Jonathan… a large degree of the stability of the US system is directly attributable to the development of the dual Umbrella Party organization. This is because it firmly rooted the electoral process at the county and municipal level, where most true representative democracy begins and prospers. On average, every single country in the United States has at least one and a half developed political networks, and because the volunteers and leadership of both Parties are locals, there’s much more open discourse. It’s at this level that country, State, and National balloting is overseen (which makes the process much more difficult to rig), and it’s this system that insures that the US Republic retains a vigourus grassroots culture and a bottom up, rather than top down, form of Democracy. Lastly, it’s this structural development that largely keeps the cabals one always finds in the National committees from ideological hijacks or purging the entire Party apparatus, as doing so causes the State/county organizations to reform smack in the center left or right of the political spectrum (as Bush Sr. discovered).

    (It’s my suspicion that the Clintonites/New Left tried and failed to bully State Parties into Caususes and Advisory Primary’s… not much Hillary uphoria at the convention. (sob))

  7. Jim Miller notes that the Washington St. primary was a “super open primary”:

    (If you are not from Washington, you may need an explanation of the “blanket” primary. In Washington, for many years, primary voters were able to vote in both political primaries. The voter could vote for a Republican candidate for governor, a Democratic candidate for senator, a Libertarian candidate for secretary of state, and so on down the line. A farmer’s organization, the Grange, got this passed years ago and has taken pride in it ever since. (I believe Alaska used it for a while, too, but no other states.) Although I prefer other ways to nominate candidates, I thought the court decision that killed it was idiotic.

    Perhaps he will see this and comment more on his impressions of how well it worked.

    Matya no baka

  8. Matya,

    To me is seems that Washington has been doing well with thier government. Compared to Oregon and especially Californina, thier budget problems were miniscule. Is a (positive) responsive government a result of increased ballot competition?

  9. Perhaps the two-party system tends to breed cynicism because most of us are perpetually faced with a “lesser of two evils” choice for each elected position.

    But what really is the alternative? If I am to expect to find a candidate that agrees with me on, say, each of eight contentious binary issues, then I must also expect to be choosing from a field of about 256 candidates. Since no candidate in such a field is likely to ever have a true mandate, such an election will probably determine a power-sharing arrangement among the top vote getters rather than a winner-take-all binary decision.

    Extending the engineering analogy, one might regard the two-party system as “digital” whereas the many-party system is “analog.” Furthermore, one can argue that the two-party system has some advantages over a multi-party system just as a digital system generally beats an analog system with regard to (for example) noise immunity and bandwidth utilization.

    This argument was developed at length (of course) by Steven den Beste in this classic post,, which came to mind while I was reading your post, Jonathan.

    I too certainly disagree with Tom P’s barb about “the antiquated two-party political system.” In fact, I think there is much evidence that it is actually a strength that helps explain America’s superior long-term political performance. I just wish one of the parties was more able to develop competitive ideas to help the current process.

  10. Andy D:

    I’m not sure, as i live in Boston. The Washington St. legislature may well be more balanced and accountable as a result of the blanket primary, i would have no way to tell.

    There are other economic factors that might account for the difference in budget problems:
    Microsoft is in Washington St. and continued to have pretty good profits during the recession.
    Washington St. (and especially Seattle) has had experience with relying on cyclical companies for their tax revenues. Boeing’s profits are very cyclical, and also were affected by the drop in defense spending during the 90s.
    California especially grew to rely on the huge windfall from capital gains taxes when people cashed in their options. The capital gains windfall in Washington St. had already declined as of the start of the monopoly proceedings against Microsoft (their stock price relatively speaking stabilized).
    But i don’t know how much of Washington St. revenue comes from Microsoft and its employees, so these are qualitative guesses at other ideas to check.

    Matya no baka

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