Fragmentation

Esteemed co-blogger Chris Dierkes has a challenging post on the democratic process. Here’s a decent summary:

In our late modern (or postmodern if you like) world, with the proliferation of many interests and sub-interests, causing fragmentation across society (”the long tail” phenomenon), aligning interests becomes nearly impossible. There are too many interests, too many too narrowly focused, too many too tightly held ,propped up by the professionalization of the lobbying class and the sea of money that bears down on the shores of our politics.  Clearing the deck and prioritizing becomes a Herculean task beyond the mere mortals who hold the power these days.

I admit I’m drawn to bloggers (like Chris) who wear their conservative pessimism on their sleeves. But I’m not sure I find this analysis all that compelling. As a purely descriptive statement, I suppose I agree – our fragmented political culture has a damnably hard time getting anything of consequence done. But is this a result of a terribly flawed process or the fact that none of the issues facing our government are incredibly important?

The correct response lies somewhere in between, but I’d wager that most of the problems facing the United States don’t rise to the level of national emergencies. For all our security-related hysterics, terrorism has never posed an existential threat to the United States. Likewise global warming, which will probably be dealt with through a combination of private innovation and intelligent, government-sponsored mitigation strategies. Other problems – endemic poverty, the economic crisis – are certainly important, but I’m not sure they represent anything approaching a true crisis.

In fact, recent history suggests that our biggest blunders have been thoroughly bipartisan – witness the Iraq War’s near-universal support circa 2003 or the ongoing, argument-proof consensus in favor of the drug war. So is widespread political agreement really that desirable? I won’t complain if consensus is reached through considered deliberation, but that doesn’t seem to happen  in the political sphere, where agreement is emotive rather than policy-driven. We all know that terrorists are bad people, so we declare war on them. Is this the best policy response? Probably not, but hey, at least our discourse isn’t so fragmented!

This is not to say there aren’t serious problems facing the United States, but I don’t an increasingly diverse political conversation is to blame. As things stand, the most difficult issues are consistently pushed aside precisely because those most affected are not engaged in the political process. If anything, more fragmentation would be genuinely beneficial if it would help expand the spectrum of acceptable political discussion. Elsewhere, Freddie has ably documented the ongoing marginalization of the anti-imperialist left, who, despite having leveled a critique of American power that was largely vindicated by events, continue to be left out of foreign policy. In much the same way, those most affected by the drug war don’t even have a seat at our political table. How many congressional hearings have examined the impact of aggressive drug enforcement on inner-city communities? How many bills have been introduced to address our burgeoning prison population? Jim Webb’s admirable legislative agenda notwithstanding, these aren’t the sort of things that get talked about with any regularity on Capitol Hill.

Instead of trying to forge an unwieldy political consensus, I’d rather focus on diversifying our policy-making process. Maybe we won’t agree on everything, but at least we’ll hear from those of us who would otherwise get left behind. Inclusion isn’t the worst thing in the world.

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6 thoughts on “Fragmentation

  1. “I admit I’m drawn to bloggers (like Chris) who wear their conservative pessimism on their sleeves.”

    I found the following at smirkingchimp.com “Hysterical fear afflicts the right” by Jaime O’Neill. It really fits into your “pessimism on their sleeves” description.

    “For right wingers, the sky is always falling: the commies are under every bed, the “liberals” are gonna get us all, the environmentalists are bent on driving us into the poor house, the French are going to impose their hated lifestyle upon us, the wimps are going to make us register our firearms, the gays are going to turn our kids into homosexuals, the atheists are going to take Christmas away from us, the unions are going to bring down the capitalist system, the illegals are going to deprive us of our hoped-for careers as lettuce harvesters, the global warming scientists are going to put an end to the free enterprise system, the do-gooders are going to force us all to drive dinky little cars, the welfare recipients are going to drain away the hard-earned money of defense contractors, the politicians are going to put bureaucrats in charge of our health care while denying us the right to choose our own doctors, the peaceniks are going to dismantle the Pentagon, and the terrorists are on their way to blow up our shopping malls with the active collusion of our newly-elected Muslim president, the most dangerous threat to the Republic we’ve ever seen, if you don’t count Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter.”

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  2. I’ll cop to some pessimism (at least in the short/medium range) but it’s not of the hysterical right-wing variety. Bob I don’t think your comment is particularly relevant here since I basically agree with it–i.e. I don’t think “lefties”, non-whites, and assorted (so-called) evildoers are close to eviscerating America. I don’t think gay marriage is going to destroy moral civilization. I agree that there is no war against (X,Y,Z group) that threatens Western civilization.

    What I am more concerned about is the structural inability of large nation-states to respond to the increasing speed of life, technology, and change. It doesn’t have to be apocalyptic destruction, Road Warrior style. It might just get gummed up. Like really gummed up.

    I think nation-states are facing pressures from above (unregulated global finance) and below (sub-national actors). Also in many places there is not a sufficient nation-state apparatus (Lebanon, Afghanistan, Palestine, to name a few) which causes a whole other set of series problems. I just haven’t seen yet a party/platform deft enough to argue that different problems require different solutions dependent on the context of the location itself. What I generally see are one size fits all solutions (of whatever political stripe).

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  3. Chris –

    All valid concerns (a bit reminiscent of Kaplan’s “Coming Anarchy), but I’m not sure we need a lock-step political consensus to deal with them. Indeed, I’d argue one-size-fits-all solutions are more likely to develop in a world where our political discourse is dominated by stultifying establishment thinking.

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  4. Will,

    I think we are using consensus in slightly different ways. I mean more in the Habermas style. I agree that establishment thinking qua consensus is stultifying. I mean something more like conscious reflective consensus not unconscious, unquestioned common thought.

    I’m thinking less of a lock-step consensus and more of a mediated, dialogical one. How to do that is the bugger.

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  5. Chris –

    I’m a big fan of communicative rationality – I just don’t think our political class is equipped to initiate that dialogue. Too often, “consensus” is code for an extremely narrow spectrum of acceptable discourse.

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  6. “Bob I don’t think your comment is particularly relevant here since I basically agree with it….”

    Think what you like Chris.

    The selection from smirkingchimp was not written with you in mind, at least I have no reason to think it was. So don’t put on your sackcloth and ashes just yet. The comment was directed at the likes of Beck, Hannity, Limbaugh and others.

    I thought it relevant, still think it relevant, because it encapsulates the hysteria and fear spread by the population of Wingnutia, the phenomena Will described as being worn on sleeves.

    (But I’m happy you “basically agree with it.”)

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