Monday, March 15, 2010

Perils of Polarisation in a two-party political system.

I been watchin Jon Stewart on the Daily Show.

Some background first on the US political environment. There are two main political parties, the Democratic Party (liberal, left wing), and the Republicans (conservative, right wing).

The Republicans are against big govt, welfarism, taxes, and for religion/religious values, capitalism, pro-life and the right to keep and bear arms.

The Democrats are about providing a social safety net, are pro-choice on abortion, religion, alternative lifestyle, wants to control guns, separate church from state, and are against de-regulation (for the sake of de-regulation). And for all that they need to fund their agenda with taxes, and a relatively large govt (bureaucracy).

The Republicans have evangelists and religious leaders, as well as some rather outspoken media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh (google him), as well as media resources, such as Fox News. You may have heard that sometime last year, the Obama (Democrat) administration barred Fox News from White House Press media events because Fox News was not impartial and distorting the Obama Administration's positions.

The Democrats have their own lobby groups and their own media personalities such as Jon Stewart ("The Daily Show") and Stephen Colbert ("The Colbert Report"). The latter is a spoof. Stephen Colbert takes on the persona of a conservative idiot who fights the Left-wing Democrats (ineffectively) on his show.

There are many other players on both sides, but one on the Left (with Jon Stewart) is Keith Olbermann. Anyway, Jon Stewart noted that Keith Olbermann had been going a little overboard on the name-calling and took him to task for it (in a humourous way), and Olbermann actually acknowledged that he may have gone overboard. Which was a really gracious response.

In the comments on that clip, there were supporters who were supportive of his gracious response, but one fan/liberal ("skybolt") did not agree. Here are his comments and the responses to him.


January 25, 2010 10:31 AM

Stewart never should have gone after Olbermann in public, and Olbermann shouldn't have apologized. Politics is war. You attack the enemy, not your allies, and you don't apologize for attacking as the enemy as fiercely as you can.

January 25, 2010 11:12 AM in reply to Skybolt

Double fail:
1/ Stewart is a comedian who ridicules those who go over the top regardless of their ideology, and KO was clearly over the top. He's not a political hack.

2/ Politicians and pundits may go at each others throat if it pleases them, but they lose all credibility with sane people when doing so.


January 25, 2010 4:39 PM in reply to RectoNoVerso

1) John Stewart has influence now, and with that comes additional responsibility. Unless he wants to help the Republicans, he can't go after people on his side of the line on the grounds of "civility" or being "over the top."

2) This claim is ridiculous. Politicians and pundits do not lose credibility with anyone important by going at the other side's throats. Any political partisan who wants to achieve anything knows that your politicians and pundits have to be on the attack all the time. When a guy like Olbermann gets vicious, he does not lose credibility with conservatives, because he never had any credibillity with conservatives. He loses credibility with David Broder, but David Broder is irrelevant. And he gains credibility with any liberal or Democrat who wants to win.


January 25, 2010 8:34 PM in reply to Skybolt

Your two points might be more credible if you were talking about a percentage of the voting electorate that only numbers, at best, no more than 15 per cent.

Liberal Democrats have no chance of winning without convincing moderates and independents that they are worth voting for. Painting caricatures of your opponent might be useful at discrediting some policy positions, but if a policy position is popular (even if the premises are flawed), attacking it can backfire bigtime.


January 25, 2010 9:12 PM in reply to Skybolt

If you relentlessly attack the other side and never criticize your own side, then you are an A-hole, and lose credibility with people who are not A-holes. Would I like Republicans more if their brand of politics were fact-based persuasion instead of all-out war? Yes. Would the country exist today if the founding fathers had practiced the brand of politics you favor, Skybolt? It would not; sayonara, Federalist Papers! I'll stick with the team that has faith in the merits of its ideas instead of its smears, and that realizes the only way to HAVE ideas is to criticize their own. That side for the past 14-15 years at least has been the Democrats.

Also, for the record, I'd argue Stewart's primary target has always been the media itself -- how it amplifies or neglects various memes, ignorances, and hypocrisies.


January 26, 2010 8:28 AM in reply to hotspur

Internal disagreement is perfectly fine. Airing those disagreements in public is stupid. It only helps the other side. Republicans do not do "fact-based persuasion" because their ideas are not based on facts. It's their beliefs and policies that make them repulsive, not their tactics. Their tactics are how they win. Our tactics are how we lose.

Politicians were extremely vicious in the 18th and 19th centuries and they attacked each other mercilessly. But that is not relevant. We are talking about what works right now. Slapping each other around in public is one of the things that makes Democrats look weak and incompetent. Civility and openness amounts to letting the other side win.


January 27, 2010 10:45 AM in reply to Skybolt

Excellent points. If only Democrats could take on Republicans as vigorously as they engage in the circular firing squad...

But lately I have become extremely depressed, realizing that when you operate under the assumption that you can create your own reality, that if you say something often enough it becomes a fact, and you also have a TV network at your disposal as well as an army of emailers who can make gullible recipients believe pretty much anything that suits their preconceived biases, it's almost impossible to win against that kind of willful delusion. THIS is what the death of hope looks like....realizing that the other guys truly are more interested in destroying our side than they are in making sure our country succeeds. People suck.


January 27, 2010 10:54 AM in reply to hotspur

The founding fathers practiced dirty politics to an extreme that remains impressive even today. Hell, Burr and Hamilton actually dueled to the death over truly reprehensible mudslinging! These guys were not principled braniac philosophers who sat around drafting cogent arguments...those times of introspection were well-peppered with some pretty crazy stuff. We shouldn't fall into the trap of glorifying the founding fathers in ways that distort reality...we already have the teabaggers for that.


January 25, 2010 1:36 PM in reply to Skybolt

Nah -- Stewart does satire -- everyone's fair game for a satirist. and altho' both Olbermann's original rant and Stewart's bit satirizing it were uncomfortable for me to watch, in the end it caused Olbermann to deflate a bit, admit he had gone a little too far, and that's a good thing, for it clearly separates the man from the (right-wing crazy) boys.


January 25, 2010 4:42 PM in reply to pattybee

What separates a guy like Olbermann from the right-wing wackos is that right wing-wackos are wrong and Olbermann is right. There is nothing wrong with Olbermann's tactics.

You'll never see a Republican or a conservative argue for the neutering of one of their own. That seems to be solely a Democratic weakness.


January 26, 2010 12:03 AM in reply to Skybolt

So you are in favor of any tactic if you think it will help you win? You are in favor of beating the Republicans no matter what, including becoming them?

I disagree. Doing the right thing is the right thing. Winning by playing as dirty as the other side is a Pyrrhic Victory.


January 26, 2010 8:37 AM in reply to farnsworth

Trying to win does not make us Republicans. What makes the Republicans sleazy and disgusting is what they believe and what they try to accomplish, not the tactics they use. Becoming the Republicans means adopting the Republican viewpoint and working for the policies they prefer.

The goal of politics is not to show what a nice, polite person you are. The goal of politics is to have your personal beliefs and values enacted into law. You have to decide what is more important to you. Is it more important to win the political battle, which means saving millions of lives and probably the planet? Or is it more important to fulfill your personal image of yourself as reasonable and easy to be around?


January 26, 2010 11:23 AM in reply to Skybolt

"The goal of politics is not to show what a nice, polite person you are. The goal of politics is to have your personal beliefs and values enacted into law."


The "goal" of politics is to have the public's beliefs enacted into law. Your stated goal is the reason our democracy is in shambles. Republican or Democrat; doesn't matter.


January 26, 2010 3:14 PM in reply to ohyeathatsright

It is because of surrenderists like you that democracy is in shambles. What I obviously meant, since you seem determined to misunderstand me, is that people participate in politics in order to see their personal beliefs enacted into law. The political process is what determines whose beliefs those will be. If you are after anything else you're just trying to lose.


In the discussion above, the critics of Skybolt failed to realise and point out that the fatal assumption of Skybolt is that the Democrats will always be right. That may well be a reflection of the fundamental beliefs of the commentors. In fact Skybolt's personal belief is that Republicans are wrong and Democrats are right, never quite understanding that from the Republican's point of view, the Republicans are right and the Democrats are wrong. He sees this as a fundamental truth. His position that any tactic that will lead to victory is justifiable is no different and no more justifiable than the view of any radical/fundamentalist/terrorist. And he justifies it as backed by facts and backed by truth (just like any radical/fundamentalist/terrorist).

He further argues that the fundamental goal of politics is to ensure that your political views and values become dominant.

This is the fatal flaw of the US political system. It has polarised the nation. What started as check and balance has evolved into adversarial process, into all-out ideological warfare.

The goal of politics is to make policy. Well-informed policy. If the Democrats (or any single party) believes as Skybolt does, that it has the monopoly on truth, facts, and righteousness on its side, then the political process has already broken down. Maybe irrevocably. Because there is no room for negotiation.

The Congress/Senate set-up is to enable views to the expressed, ideas to be debated, and a decision based on the best ideas or information.

The reality is that policies are horse-traded. Parties in power decide what are their priority policies and trade with the Minority/Party in Opposition for their priority policies and try to come to some compromise. But when policies such as the healthcare bill comes around and is the priority for one to pass, and the priority of the other side to stop, there is an impasse.

The truth then is that policies are compromised into existence.

In Singapore where there isn't a two party system and no opposition party alone or in alliance can stop the PAP, policies are drafted, introduced, and passed pretty much unamended by the opposition.

Perhaps these policies lack breadth. Perhaps they lack the outsider's view. Perhaps with a more robust debate they might be better.


The experience of the US shows that an adversarial two-party system may make better political theatre, may lead to more engaging or robust debates, and may lead to many many drafts and amendments.

But it may not lead to better decisions. Sometime, it may not even lead to a decision.

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