Conflict, Clinton, & the Government Shutdown

Posted on October 15, 2013 by


Editors Note: This post’s headline has been edited since initial publication.

Channeling his inner James Madison, former President, and current raconteur, Bill Clinton said yesterday that

“Constant conflict is actually often good politics, because the more you can inflame your supporters the more likely they are to show up at Election Day,”

Clinton is speaking of conflict as a matter of electoral politics. The more combative people are, generally, the more engaged they are in the political process, which leads, potentially, to higher turnout and support. Republicans and Democrats routinely engage in these kinds of fights and rhetoric to garner support. Republicans scare their own supporters by talking about ‘death panels,’ and Democrats discuss how Republicans are killing people by cutting government spending less than 1 percent. Both sides of the aisle are still engaged in these histrionics regarding the government shutdown and the debt ceiling.

This has lead us, inevitably, to heated debates designed not to persuade the other side, or even to seek compromise, but to generate and maintain support within the party. While we might decry this, and appropriately so for normative purposes, our system of government presupposes this kind of behavior.

Madison conceived, most famously in Federalist 10, that conflict is an essential ingredient to maintaining our rights and liberties. By forcing factions into continual battle, no particular faction would be strong enough (given the size and diversity of our country) to threaten the public good. The constant churn of confrontation would have two possible outcomes. One, nothing would get done, which guarantees our liberties through government inaction, or, two, compromise happens, and in order to make sure no one ‘loses’ in the process, the end result would at least be minimally damaging to the public good.

To a large degree, this is what we are witnessing. Conservative zealots, who are threatening to run candidates to the right of every Republican deemed less than pure, are pressuring their representatives to defund Obamacare, while radical progressives, who cannot imagine why anyone would resist the idea that government is indeed “the only group we all belong to,” are pressuring Democrats to hold to the dream of nationalized, single-payer health care in the U.S. While I have no doubt the elected officials have sincere ideological commitments, they are also trying to survive politically.

This brings us, finally, to the essence of the problem. We have created a political culture where political survival is not defined by reason, statesmanship, or persuasion, but by soundbites and the appearance of fortitude. While we may be tempted to blame the Infotainment Age in which we find ourselves, there are two more likely culprits that have redefined our government.

First, we have reconfigured the House through the process of gerrymandering. In simple terms, through the use of computer technology, partisans at the state level are able to draw district boundaries so precisely that there are few competitive House seats. Survival in the U.S. House, then, has very little to do with good policy, but is predicated on the ability to satisfy core party supporters. For a Democrat there may be little reason to appeal to Republicans in your own district, or across the aisle, when you win with 75% Democrat support in your own district. For those legislators, the biggest fear is being challenged within the party, so you do what you can to make sure you appear liberal enough to placate those interests. The same is true of Republican districts, of course, where the biggest concern is the right-wing pressure.

Second, while the House was indeed designed to represent the people more directly, and to be responsive to their passions, the Senate was not. Originally chosen by state legislatures, the Senate was to be a cooling agent, a balm for the blisters brought on by the House’s inflammatory ways. Washington famously told Jefferson that he conceived of the Senate as a saucer for a cup of coffee. If the cup is hot, the saucer helps you handle the cup without burning yourself. The Senate was designed to insulate, not to inflame. Oddly, when I think of cool and deliberative, I don’t think of Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz or Dick Durbin.

The theory was that if Senators were chosen by those already elected to office, in state legislatures, we could more fully hope that people of the highest quality might be selected. Or, failing that, a new set of interests, the State’s, might be introduced into the process. As opposed to being responsive to the people and their whims, which are ephemeral, the Senate was supposed to examine legislation from the State’s perspective.

Throw into this mix a government that allows legislators to spend taxpayer dollars to both boost their electoral chances and mail thinly veiled campaign literature, there is little surprise we find ourselves in our current state.

Of course, while we find it convenient to hurl grenades at Washington, D.C. and to wish fervently for a pox to sit upon both houses of Congress, we must remember that the ladies and gentlemen who grate upon us serve not because of some divine right of idiocy, though it often appears so, but due to our own choices. So, before casting aspersions, go to the bathroom, turn on the light, and stare blankly into that shiny thing on the wall. In the end, we get precisely the kind of government we deserve, for, as Madison wrote, in Federalist 51, “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”