by Sam Buntz
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.” -John Stuart Mill
“Politics in America are too partisan”—people keep muttering this sentence. It happens to be true, and has been true for a long time, but not in the sense in which the accusation is usually levied. Let’s not forget that, a little less than two hundred years ago, a Vice President of the United States (Aaron Burr) murdered a former Treasurer of the United States in a duel (Alexander Hamilton). Albeit, that was due to a personal insult, but still—you can’t find, between political rivals, many tactics more partisan than murder. When people say that politics have become “too partisan” they are usually in the process of making a very partisan point. They tend to be saying something like, “The Republican Party is infested with Tea Party gun nuts” or “The Democrats are, at this point, complete Bolsheviks.”
In reality, I think the big problem isn’t so much the intensity and ferocity of party politics, but the increasing dogmatism and the proliferation of un-imaginative viewpoints found on both sides of the isle. The parties have hardened their ideologies into somewhat brittle shells. There are still some independent-minded politicians out there—including very influential ones—but they’re in the definite minority. Consider the decline in the membership of the Blue Dog Democrats, representing the more fiscally restrained members of the party: their numbers declined from 54 in 2008 to 27 in 2010 to just 14 members after the 2012 elections. The Republican equivalent, The Mainstreet Partnership, has about 50 members in the House and Senate—which is, albeit, a bit more. But I don’t believe it’s a particularly daring coalition. After all, John McCain—who perhaps used to belong in such a coalition—is a leading member, and his strident interventionism (recall his pledge to stay in Iraq for “100 years” if necessary) doesn’t strike me as particularly valuable or moderate. If anything, it seems that the past decade has demonstrated that we need to seek “‘Peace through strength’, not ‘War through strength,’” as Rand Paul reminded the Republicans a little while ago (paraphrasing Reagan.)
The civil and economic libertarianism of a Senator like Paul seems to me to be a more interesting counter-force in politics. The popularly repeated smear that he’s an “isolationist” doesn’t have much basis in fact—and those who insist on repeating it should read his address to the Heritage Foundation, “Containment and Radical Islam.” Despite the superficial partisanship of many congressmen, the actual ideology of both parties seems to have, at least in terms of foreign policy and civil liberties, clotted into a widespread affirmation of state-control and aggression overseas. McCain and Lindsey Graham represent the large right-wing hawk contingent, in favor of any war at any time, and eager to abuse the faith of those who feel obliged to serve America in her foreign conflicts (like the loyal, honest warrior class of the South). Although his rhetoric is softer, Obama doesn’t differ too radically from the “Kill ’Em All” people, and only Senator Paul and his allies seem to have a foreign policy that differs in any way from that of the President and his Neo-Con semi-allies. Nowhere are the principles of Classical Liberalism evident, except in the libertarian positions adopted by some. Senator Paul convincingly points out that the Executive Branch has virtually hi-jacked the war-making power from congress, consulting the U.N. and NATO before joining in the attack on Libya, but never bothering to ask for the approval of the representatives of the American people.
Hopefully, this stasis—superficially partisan, but overall, in agreement on ceding a great deal of control to the state, and on resolving conflicts through a pre-emptive, aggression-first approach—can be broken. It might be informative to look at groups like the Liberal Democrats in England, who tend to take more fiscally conservative positions than the Labor Party and more socially liberal views than the Tories. This is outlined in The Orange Book, a set of essays by the party’s leaders from 2004, detailing their platform, distancing themselves from the left-wing economic policies of previous Lib Dems, while re- dedicating themselves to social and civil liberties. It may be true that American politics needs an Orange Book of its own…