Our leaders have trouble getting along because we do.
Now that he’s leaving the governor’s office for the presidency of Purdue, Mitch Daniels can afford to disparage the partisan politics that got him elected twice. Later this month, it has been announced, he will join political and religious leaders to discuss “how to overcome partisanship to seek the common good.”
He’s been here before. When it seemed he might be a GOP presidential contender, he shocked his party (especially its most conservative members) by suggesting that addressing the national debt was such a “mortal threat” that a truce should be called on social issues. Translation: Let’s mute all the talk on the big, divisive philosophical disputes and concentrate on something that can be fixed with pragmatism and common sense.
But getting along for the sake of getting along is pointless in politics. The idea is to get something done. It matters what that something is. Certainly, seeking the common good is a worthy goal. But what exactly is the “common” good, and would we recognize it if we saw it? Even if we stumble across it, can we be sure how it was achieved?
Consider some good news the state received recently. Analysis by the nonpartisan State Budget Solutions revealed that Indian’s per capita debt is third-best in the nation – only about $5,700 per person compared with the national average of $13,000. That gives the state tremendous flexibility in everything from meeting its public-sector pension obligations to attracting new business to meeting unanticipated fiscal emergencies.
How was that feat achieved? Was it largely due to Democrats and Republicans working together? Or was it mostly because the GOP has so dominated state government in recent years? Were our frugal politicians being fiscally disciplined because of political philosophy or despite it, or were they just being ordinary tightfisted Hoosiers?
Politicians aren’t just “catering to special interests” when they behave in a partisan way. They are serving their constituents. We are a republic rather than a pure democracy, so our representatives are certainly free to go their own way, and they are often encouraged to. But no politician who wants to be re-elected will make a habit of being such a maverick. For most votes most of the time, they will do what they sense their constituents want.
We sometimes get it backward when we think about partisanship, blaming the politicians who are, after all, just standing in for us. This is not a divided country because our leaders can’t reach agreement. Our leaders can’t reach agreement because this is a divided country.