Matt Miller argues that the two-party system is responsible for America’s stagnant approach to problem solving:
Why should we have to choose between timid half-measures and anti-tax fanaticism? Why doesn’t the president propose measures equal to the scale of our challenges? Why can’t Republicans acknowledge demography or math?
Three reasons, mainly. First, both parties’ chief aim is to win elections, not solve problems. Second, both parties are prisoner to interest groups and ideological litmus tests that prevent them from blending the best of liberal and conservative thinking. Finally, neither party trusts us enough to lay out the facts and explain the steps we need to take to truly fix things.
But is the tail really wagging the dog here, or are politicians merely responding to the incentives voters give them?
Consider the budget. Leave aside arguments about whether both sides are equally guilty — these days, the GOP is clearly more so, but the Democratic Party isn’t filled with saints, either. A Roanoke College poll of voters in Virginia, a critical swing state, came out on Monday — the same day as Miller’s piece. On the one hand, it shows a huge majority in favor of reducing long-term deficits the right way — with a mixture of tax increases and spending cuts. But, it becomes clear, that’s because most think it’s possible to slash the deficit without taking any more of their money (59 percent) or slashing any of the spending they like (62 percent for entitlement programs, 51 percent for “other important programs”).
One way to read this is that politicians who are ideologically extreme, craven or both dominate the debate, and Americans’ residence in intellectual La La Land is the result. Another is that voters don’t like their taxes raised or benefits cut, and they are liable to think that they are already paying their fare share, thank you very much. Let someone else take care of it, for a change, we’re just trying to keep our teenagers from sexting each other.
The answer here probably lies between the two choices: Americans want to believe they can get something for nothing, or at least very little; politicians promise it to them — often with a heart-felt or cynical ideological gloss — which turns those politicians into elected officials and enhances voters’ belief that they can get something for nothing. Repeat. It’s not really clear who is more blameworthy — the tail or the dog.
Miller’s solution for breaking this cycle is to change the debate, making it harder for politicians associated with increasingly unpopular parties to succeed when another tells hard truths. But whether a candidate such as this can emerge from within a major party — or whether an approximation already exists — probably isn’t the biggest question, which is: If a candidate of any political affiliation tried proposing things such as dirty energy taxes, a 50 percent tax bracket, and raising the retirement age, would she really have any shot at a sizable following — not with party interest groups, but with voters? Miller’s hypothetical third-party candidate begins her stump speech like this:
I want to raise your taxes, cut spending on programs you like, and force you to rethink how we run our schools, banks, armies, hospitals and elections. And I want you to cheer when I’m done.
Good luck with that. No, really.