Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Rancor and Asperity of Party Politics

Churchill's private dinning club had in its bylaws a rule that nothing shall be done to abridge the rancor and Asperity of party politics.

Rancor has gotten an unjustifiably bad name in politics. Show me two people having a civil and constructive disagreement and I'll show you two people discussing trivia, or worse, an academic conference.

Most of the time when people make decisions about what policy to support it has little to do with our estimation of the substance of the policy and a lot to do with whether or not we trust the people proposing the policy. Therefore, it is perfectly natural and understandable that practical politicians question the motives and integrity of their opponents. Doing so is not partisan bickering, but the very meat of politics. The question people are asking themselves is "Do I trust these guys?" Asking a politician not to address that issue is to hobble their ability to speak to the real issue at hand. Thus, to ask the president to be a dignified and unifying figure and at the same time stump for his own policies, is unfair. The requirements of being a dignified head of state and effective political leader contradict one another. Needless to say, the requirement that it places on his opponents is to treat him with polite deference is equally burdensome, unfair and impractical.

This most recent speech by the president exposes the contradictions of hybrid approach. The president, as political leader, quite properly called his opponents liars. He has every right to do so.

But his position as head of state puts his audience an odd position. Obviously, the opposition cannot retaliate in kind.

We should go back to the old rule that there is no (or virtually no) applause during the head of state’s speech and the head of state saves his partisan policy advocacy for direct addresses and other venues. It is just strange to ask the opposition to sit there politely while their honesty and integrity is attacked while the rest of the room erupts in rapturous applause.

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