Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Three Tyrannies and the Filibuster

On any given issue, a legislative body can be arrayed generally from left to right with a few oddball positions thrown in. A second dimension is intensity, which we could represent as a subjective value displayed vertically. How much do you care about this issue? How much political capital would you expend to move the decision of the body closer to your own position? The typical issue would appear as a scatterplot with points randomly arrayed. However, the issues that get the headlines and capture the attention of the People are often those that describe a shape approximating the letter U. We are talking about the passionate intensity of the extremes here.

Much of the body's efforts will be directed toward preventing these contentious issues from being resolved. The obvious solution, choosing some middling position, is detested by both sides. Instead, there will be a tug of war over the people in the middle. When one of the extremes is able to enlist the middle by means of coercion, bribery or persuasion, then the body will rapidly congregate at that extreme. This is what we call the Tyranny of the Majority.

When a member habitually takes advantage of a relatively unconcerned position in the middle to solicit concessions on other issues, legitimate or otherwise, we would call that individual a politician. The middle is where the politicians would all like to be on every issue, because that is where the power is. I call this the Tyranny of the Swing Vote. The less they care, the more they carry. The various mechanisms to diminish this effect include party discipline, supermajority rules, the filibuster and public exposure.

Public exposure of hypocrisy, however, is a pretty blunt sword by now. The type of people who make it into high office are not easily embarrassed and are more than capable of defending themselves. More importantly, they already know exactly how far they can go, where they have to look good for their constituents and where they can maneuver. Now, since they are all like this, public perception becomes the coin of the realm. Like squabbling siblings, they make each other look bad without regard to the actual situation. Just as you can never explain things to your parents, the public remains oblivious to the real action. Honest conversation on key issues can always be sandbagged by tactically minded partisans, by simply leaking some of it to the press. As a result, legislators wear a kind of straightjacket of perception management strictures. Let’s call this the Tyranny of Bandwidth. No matter how meritorious an argument may be, the Public can grasp only the basic outline. The mechanisms used to diminish this effect are coalitions, secrecy and message management. The right solution would be finding ways to educate and opening the channel wider.

The appropriate response to a contentious, U-shaped issue is to work from the middle outward. Try to develop a central coalition to solve the problem by means of splitting it into less contentious subproblems, combining it with other contentious issues where tradeoffs can be worked out, making genuine compromises and generating new thinking by creative collaboration. This is where collegiality is necessary. A democracy will not last long unless true consensus is the general rule and the three tyrannies are kept in check.

5/3/2005 2:42 PM

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