The (political) Pit and the Pendulum

Today is a day of profound transition. And to paraphrase a line stolen from Spiderman, with great transition comes great responsibility, which brings me to the important word of the moment: Equilibrium. Equilibrium is a funny thing, especially given that nature, in all its marvelous vastness, seeks such a balance. Gasses moving from high to low pressure, balance in ecosystems, water seeking its lowest point, Cessna 172s, and especially the slow diminishing movements of a pendulum are all examples of nature’s proclivity for equilibrium. To me, this natural state should also subsist in politics, and indeed, it makes them more effective, efficient, and to steal a political science term, sticky. I will explain, and please forgive my simplifying a subject that is more complicated than I am giving it credit for. Bear with me.

After the 2008 election the Democratic party was in much the same place that the Republicans find themselves in today. They had both houses of congress and the presidency, and it was predicted that this was a generational sea-change that was the new norm, and there was much partisan rejoicing, and also gnashing of teeth (sound familiar?).With no partisan rancor, I think it is fair to say the actions and intent of the Obama administration were to swing the proverbial political pendulum hard to the left, hoping to force it to stay there. The easiest and most descriptive target for our conversation were the efforts of Obamacare (I want to address social change in the military, but it was not voted on, and was a supporting act, not the main stage). Obamacare, the landmark achievement of the last administration, passed the house and the senate without a single Republican vote. At the time the very fact it passed was hailed as an achievement, often because it was done in spite of the Republican party. This mentality is not only poisonous, but it creates legislation that can be easily used as a wedge issue to motivate voters of the opposition. Nor, does passing a bill with no bipartisan support signal good governance, or any level of compromise, and ultimately (at least in this example) because there were no supporting votes from the other side, the legislation upset the very notion of equilibrium. It didn’t even have the veneer of equilibrium, and loudly celebrated itself as such. This, in the humble opinion of the author, is not a formula for lasting legislation. Also, the lack of any bipartisanship gave legitimacy to the narrative (rightly or wrongly) that the pendulum was being forced hard to the left and ultimately that it was in dire need of correction. This alone does not explain the history of the last 8 years, but I think it is a fair place to begin thinking about it. I also posit that it is fair to make the claim that bipartisan legislation is sticky legislation. Even bad bipartisan legislation is difficult to remove, because both sides have a vested interest in maintaining it. This is not a catch-all fix, but as I said earlier, it is a good place to begin governing.

Now, here we find ourselves. Watching the news and CSPAN I see much of the same self-fulfillment and sense of assured righteousness as in 2008. I have seen similar Carville-esque over-zealousness  that prefaced the implosion of the contemporary Democratic party. I have even seen similarities in the way both sides have leveraged identity politics to empower their message, a point that most Republicans would probably try to dispute. This does not bode well. I hope, and it is a sincere hope, that the next sessions of congress are productive and bipartisan, and if my theory proves correct, accordingly sticky. But if instead the Republican majorities try to force the pendulum hard to the right, as done before, I would bet my flight-pay that they will find themselves in the same position that the Democrats are in today. Now, not to get too grim about the future, but it is then possible that if this is the case we may see the worst possible outcome, a divergent, negatively stable sine-wave, that continues to move away from the center. Extremism exists at both the margins far from the center. Republicans would do well to read their history and keep in mind these lessons, and in doing so, practice restraint and bipartisanship in their governance. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road to irrelevancy is paved with pendulum forcing. Incrementalism may not be sexy, but it certainly has its virtues.

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