Sep 21, 2009

Asymmetrical politics

Liberal hearts will rejoice at the shape of Steven Benen's graph showing a Republican Party in disfavor in most of the United States - everywhere but the South, it seems, where the favorable rating runs just 13 points ahead of the unfavorable.

But the graph also highlights a problem for Democrats. The asymmetry between Democratic power in Washington and Republican popularity may make it harder to push a progressive agenda. As anyone who's watched California's budget battle unfold, the incentive to compromise disappears when only one side has any real ownership of a policy. As in asymmetrical warfare, an enemy overwhelmed by conventional force will turn to unconventional means to gum up the works. Honest brokers become hard to find. Negotiations break down as factions, unconstrained by any sense of political ownership, become ever more provincial and extreme. As the health care reform debate shows, the party in power has to reach much further across the aisle to try to build a center; meanwhile, the power vacuum gets filled by corporations, which demand legislative changes without the filter of elected (read: accountable) officials.

Of course, it will not always be this way. To say the GOP will remain in the minority is as silly as Karl Rove's prediction that the party would be a permanent majority. A recalibration seems almost inevitable. It remains to be seen, however, whether the asymmetry leads to a lasting electorate shift (as conservative Democrats migrate back to the Republican Party) such that the default position of American politics is center-left instead of center-right.

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