Sunday, March 20, 2011

One pole or another

By Bill Kraus

A recent poll by UW prof Ken Goldstein indicates polarization has reached new heights (or lows) and that the admonition in the rules of government--a stalemate must be broken before there is time to dig a trench--has been cast aside.

The Republicans are dug in on their issues and the Democrats on theirs. The only thing they agree on is that Senator Dale Schultz, who is wandering around in the no man’s land between them, is wrong because he got out of his trench in search of compromise.

The road to total polarization was started when the brilliant and bellicose Chuck Chvala (Democratic Senate Majority Leader) and Scott Jensen (Republican Speaker of the Assembly) convinced their caucuses not only that the ideas coming from the other side of the aisle were lousy but so were the people on the other side of the aisle who were espousing them.

The road from being adversaries to being enemies on a personal basis started then and has exacerbated ever since.

The caucuses now seem to be dominated by true believers whose numbers have grown in no small measure due to the bi-party urge to gerrymander the state into as many safe legislative seats as possible. No one who participated in these redistricting conspiracies seems to have heard of the law of unintended consequences, or known that the leaders’ greatest nightmare is the super-partisan in a safe seat who can follow his or her singular view of the truth without regard to whether the government works or not.

Speaker of the House John Boehner’s life is more visibly made more difficult by this law. The Fitzgerald brothers less so, but they would do well to watch out. One of the other rules of government is that your enemies are out in front of you and a lot easier to ward off and contend with than your “friends” who are behind you delivering rabbit punches.

In a polarized world where adversaries do not talk or relate to one another, compromise is not only impossible it’s demeaned. This means that the route to action is pretty much totalitarian. Not unlike the third-party afflicted governments in other places, particularly the Middle East.

One party gets into power with the help of the shrunken but vital middle and rides roughshod over the other party.

As soon as they go too far, as they inevitably do (Lord Acton may be dead but his aphorism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is not), the voters in the middle will rue their decision to go in one direction and switch to the other side. According to Professor Goldstein they have already done that in Wisconsin. If an election were held today the signs are that the tsunami that the Republicans rode to dominance in 2010 would wash them out to sea in 2011.

This is no way to run a country or a state.

The ins get their way until they become the outs who then get their way until they, too, are no longer in.

In a split government this doesn’t happen, which is why I have always covertly been less sanguine about one party domination than, as a perceived partisan, I was expected to be.

For a split government to succeed, however, no man’s land has to be a less lethal place. The warring troops, or enough of them to form a working majority, have to be able to get out of their trenches and put together what most of the people (with the exception of the true believer/yellow dogs on the margins and in the minority) want: a government that works.

In the current atmosphere, this is very dangerous to espouse. We have only to look at the venom being loosed on Democratic Senator Tim Cullen by his fellow Democrats and what Senator Dale Schultz suffered at the hands of his presumed brothers in arms.

I know it’s absurd to suggest it, but I will anyway. One of the not insignificant causes of paralyzing polarization is the rush to create more safe districts (to save campaign money) which tend to be occupied by radical non-compromisers of the right and left.

This is not good for the 82 percent of the people who are functionally disenfranchised, nor for the leaders who have to deal with the righteous recalcitrants in their own caucuses as they assemble the votes they need on difficult questions.

Could we start with a bipartisan effort to de-gerrymander? We could of course. Will we?

Follow Bill Kraus on:
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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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