Bipolar politics

Sam Smith

A few days after the mainstream media went wild over the transitory compatibility of Barack Obama and Chris Christie, I attended the kickoff of the return of train service to my Maine town after 52 years. Present were the high school band, the Portland Seadog mascot Slugger, and the harbormaster, among many others.

When the train arrived, a squad of dancers leaped off and after they had distributed T shirts and the older, less mobile passengers had disembarked, it was time for a string of talks. Among them:
– Republican Senator Olympia Snowe,
– Democratic congresswoman Chellie Pingree (who praised Snowe for her fine efforts on behalf of the train).
– The transportation director for Tea Party pal Governor Paul LePage
– The independent candidate for Senate, Angus King, who had arrived to board the train in  Portland in the same automobile as Senator Snowe, who is retiring.
As I watched, I wished that one of the crisis cultists named Chris from MSNBC (either Matthews or Hayes) could be on hand to learn that American politics isn’t necessarily the dysfunctional bipolar activity that they report with such vigor. And that the pragmatic Chris from New Jersey is far more in our political tradition than the dysfunctional Washington crowd that now hogs our airwaves.
No one at the train station seemed excited or perturbed that the politicians speaking were not adhering the evangelical moral positions assigned to them by the Tea Party, Move On, CNN, or the collective political science departments of American universities. Instead of choosing between left and right, big government and small, capitalism and socialism, they had reached the joint conclusion that bringing the train back would be a good idea.
And the crowd clearly agreed with them. But if you major in political science, listen to the evening news, or read too many op eds, you don’t learn about the politics of bringing a train back. Instead it is expected, nay demanded, that politics be  based on a hyper simplistic bifurcation of options.
The best politicians never used to do this. And it wasn’t just a matter of finding a muddled middle. A really good politician knew where to go and when to take a detour. The middlers simply cut things in half.  When I was at Coast Guard officer candidate school, our navigation instructor explained the danger of this: “If you take a navigational fix and it places you on one side of a rock and then you take another fix and it places you on the other side, don’t split the difference.”
There is a world of difference between being a mushy centrist and being someone with a destination yet still willing to adjust, delay or compromise for practical reasons.
Further, there are a whole realm of factors that can diminish the importance of bipolar ideology such as what your constituents are thinking, where you’re getting your funding and who you don’t want to piss off because you need their help on something else.
This is one reason why Romney and Ryan seem so foolish as well as such liars. They present a totally indefensible message and then repeatedly get caught not following their own rules.
This is also one reason liberals don’t do better. Once you’ve established in your own mind that big government is good and small government will return us to the Confederacy, then you’re no more equipped to deal with reality than a Ryan or Romney. If you can’t tell the difference between the federal role in Social Security and in what goes on in a local classroom, then you’re not doing much better than Mitt.
What’s behind all this is that politics has become a secular evangelical religion in which the sincerity of faith outweighs the utility of works.
And it’s not just the right, When, for example, was the last time you heard a leading economist talking about the relationship of competition, culture and cooperation in small business? When was the last time Washington, in any meaningful way, sought to decentralize its programs on the basis of what was once called subsidiarity, i.e. government at the lowest practical level?
My whole life I have been enthralled with the complexity of things around me. It was one reason I majored in anthropology rather than economics or politic science; I didn’t want to reduce life to a few theories that intellectuals could argue about into infinity while the rest of the world fell apart.
I loved the reality and complexity of politics. As I once put it: “Politics is the sound of the air coming out of the balloon of our expectations and it is the music of hope”. . .
It is not about theories but about principles butting into hurricanes. It is not an evangelical order but a secular trade. It is not an ideology but a pragmatic exploration. James Michael Curley put it this way: ‘Wherever I have found a thistle, I endeavored to replace it with a rose.’
Politics is never a neat place. A young legislator once asked Earl Long whether ideals had any place in politics. “Hell yes,” said Ol’ Earl, “you should use ideals or any other damn thing you can get your hands on.”
Which is how we get train service restored and disaster relief delivered.

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