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2: “Politicians now appear…”

November 12, 2012

2: “Politicians now appear…”

The Federalist 2. First published October 31, 1787. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

If one sentiment is shared throughout history, it is disdain for politicians. In our own times, nearly every congressperson promises to clean up Washington and move past politics as usual. If there’s one thing Obama and Boehner can agree on, it is that politicians, not people, are the problem. The people want politicians to get things done; it’s those politicians on the other side acting all political that’s the problem.

Publius picks on the same bogeyman. Indeed, Publius uses the very word “poltician” in a strikingly modern manner. Early in Federalist 2, he writes darkly that “Politicians now appear [… who seek] a division of the states into distinct confederacies… Certain characters who were much opposed to [confederacy] formerly, are at present [in favor].” One can hear the same voice President Obama uses to talk pointedly of “the other side”. Publius—and the President—need not name names. Simply noting that their opponents are politicians is indictment enough.

There is only one problem with this easy line: It’s simply not true. Politicians are not the problem. We are.

A scary truth underlies our present division. Voters are the drivers behind partisan politics, not our leaders.

My lifetime has seen a sharp widening of the partisan gap among ordinary voters. Those Americans who still identify themselves by party label are more divided now than at any point in the last 25 years, according to a study by the widely-respected Pew Research Center (see graphic).

This partisanship shows up in the astonishingly partisan districts many Americans now call home. More and more Americans live in areas like mine, Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District. My hip, city district has not elected a Republican since 1955. In 2012, incumbent Earl Blumenauer won an astonishing 74% of the vote. .

Of course, gerrymandering accounts for some of this sort of lopsided result. But not all of it. The politicians are also following the peoples’ lead. Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into politically comfortable neighborhoods and friend groups. That is not our politicians fault.

Nor is the rise of “independents” as comforting as it sometimes seems. To be sure, the number of Americans calling themselves “independents” has risen steadily. But telling a pollster you are “independent” may not say much about how you vote. Indeed, 28% of Tea Party members identify as Independents—yet Tea Partiers are hardly likely to swing between Democrat and Republican, in the way most of us picture an “independent” voter.

And indeed, studies bear this out. Pew’s partisan culture gap has risen by eight points between self-identified Democrats and Republicans. But it has also risen by seven points between people who “lean Republican” or “lean Democrat”. Clearly, independents are not as independent as we might think.

So if the root of our problem is the voters, is there any hope for today’s hyper-partisan, hyper-dysfunctional American government? Publius may just have the answer. After his cheap dig at politicians, Publius offers a suggestion highly unusual today: Trust them anyway.

To be sure, Publius talks dismissively of his “politician” opponents. Yet in the end, he calls for his readers to trust the “many wise and experienced men” who wrote the Constitution. He notes that they spent many months debating its points, and implies that this detailed study may make them better qualified on its merits than the man on the street—let’s call him a typical voter.

There is, in fact, a virtue to elite backroom politics. Voters should not be blind. Politicians are accountable to the people for good reason, after all. The people know their own interests best.

But perhaps us modern voters should consider being a little more humble. Our politicians work hard to make hard choices. A little bit more deference on our part might just get us that compromise Americans always say we want.

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From → The Papers

One Comment
  1. Eric Schaefer permalink

    It’s amazing that Blumenauer got 74%. With that much support, he should be more partisan.

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