Each party gives to the greater good

  • Article by: DANE SMITH
  • Updated: January 5, 2013 - 5:59 PM

When talking politics, we need better analogies than war and football. We need to envision more than winning or losing.

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Amid postcliff anger in Washington and pre-legislative angst in St. Paul, some long-faced apocalyptics on the left and the right might as well be wearing sandwich boards that proclaim "The End is Near'' or "All is Lost.''

It's become routine after big elections or policy fights to hear zealots threaten to leave for Canada (liberals) or to secede from the union (conservatives).

The rest of us also can fall prey to Armageddonism -- viewing the political process with despair and cynicism, as a mutually destructive war. Or as a football game, where if one side is scoring points and gaining ground, the other side must be losing something, being pushed ever closer to the final agony of defeat.

For purposes of raising funds and boosting interest group clout, few tactics work better than ginning up horror that the villains and fools on the "other side" are just this close to ending our world as we know it -- and that's why further compromise or cooperation is unthinkable. The news media also tends to demand not only some sort of "score,'' but a destiny, and often rushes to describe every twist and turn in terms of decisive, watershed, turning-point finality.

Here's the case for a broader and more mature historical perspective. Let's entertain the notion that in recent decades, as conservatives have triumphed nationally and globally by establishing free economies shaped by individual initiative as the optimum social model, liberals have simultaneously been winning the battle for stronger, more inclusive democratic governments focused on the public good and greater equality.

In other words, we would be on our way to having this and that -- lofty goals in constructive tension with each other -- if we could get past thinking that our only choice is this or that. Or that just beyond every election result or policy change lies a cliff, or at least a slippery slope.

Perhaps the best antidepressants for conservatives these days are being dispensed by journalist David Frum, who in a brilliant column immediately after Election Day summarized 50 years of conservative policy gains in a nation and a world in which "free enterprise has been winning the game for a long time.''

A former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Frum noted that the top marginal federal income tax rate in 1962 was 91 percent, that regulation of every sector of the economy was more pervasive and that Marxism was "a live intellectual force.''

On other fronts for conservatives, after the hedonistic libertarianism ("if it feels good, do it'') of the 1960s and '70s, respect for religious faith, self-control and personal responsibility has made a comeback. Rates of teenage pregnancy and crime are dropping, and the general conviction is alive and well that self-discipline, spirituality, family values and hard work lead to personal success and social harmony.

For progressives, too, the glass is more than half-full. The basic safety net first woven in the 1930s New Deal -- for the young, the old, the disabled and those who for whatever reason stumble and fall in life -- remains intact. Federal and state governments are doing much more than they did 50 years ago to create both equal opportunities and more equal outcomes in education, health care and general economic condition, as well as to ensure a cleaner environment.

In America and across the globe, social justice and equity struggles for women and long-oppressed minorities, including sexual minorities, are being fought and often won. In the United States, although the 1 percent are getting an ever bigger share of the economic pie, the racial mix of families in middle- or upper-middle income ranks is much more equitable than it was 50 years ago, before the civil-rights movement and the Great Society programs.

In an important book "The Better Angels of our Nature,'' psychologist Steven Pinker documents humanity's remarkable evolution over millennia toward less violence and a "rights revolution.'' Pinker credits better governments, literacy, trade and cosmopolitanism. Pinker and many other big thinkers are reaching a consensus that capitalism and responsible democracies are combining to increase longevity and living standards. Tribalistic triumphalism is being moderated, and the idea of some basic entitlement for all of God's children is advancing.

Few provinces in the world have found this golden mean between private and public interest as happily as Minnesota. We have one of the nation's most robust and innovative private sectors, and by all accounts, on most measurements, clean and effective governments and public systems, and all those quality-of-life indicators to show for it.

Of course, we still have many things to worry about. The market failed spectacularly in 2008, a classic case of overreach by capitalists, and both employment and income in the private sector have been shrinking. Neither business nor government is doing a great job right now improving the economic condition of those with low and middling incomes. Climate change could actually represent something of an Armageddon. Too much deprivation, violence, and unnecessary misery and sickness still afflicts our world and our state.

But on our way to fixing these things, we need better analogies than war and football, a more subtle image of our task than the vision of winning or losing.

Whether driving a car or steering a ship, you'll never reach your destination by cranking the wheel all the way left or all the way right -- nor by setting a compass heading and locking the wheel in position. Staying on course, out of the ditch and away from the rocks requires endless little tugs to the left and to the right. Sometimes a broad, steady turn is needed in one direction or the other -- but always you come back to center.

Think of switchbacks on a mountain road, as we continue to make progress toward the summit.

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Dane Smith is president of Growth & Justice, a progressive policy research organization focused on reducing economic inequality in Minnesota.

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