Saturday, February 4, 2012

More on polarization

The justice system in the USA is predicated on a couple of major foundation stones:  the accused are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and a willingness to let the guilty go free to prevent the innocent from being unjustly punished for a crime.  This automatically creates a conflict between those willing to run roughshod over American judicial requirements in order to punish those guilty of crimes and those willing to run roughshod over the rights of crime victims in order to free those who may be guilty.  This has been a difficult tightrope to walk along and has become a very divisive issue in our society.

We have a huge population of people in prison today, with overcrowded jails and a massive bill to our society for warehousing all those imprisoned.  The cost of their medical care included that for catastrophic illness that may require very expensive procedures (e.g., heart transplants).  Many in our prisons have been convicted for drug offenses - victimless crimes - in the ridiculous and wasteful "war on drugs" in America.  Some fraction of our prisoners in jail for violent crime are, in fact, innocent - perhaps because the police and prosecuting attorneys are more interested in "solving" crimes than they are in justice.  Even at that, we find ourselves in a nation where violent criminals are freed routinely after serving only a fraction of their sentences (overcrowding plays a role), and they go on to commit more violent crimes, including on those seen as responsible for sending them to prison (i.e., victims).  Politically polarized debates on "law and order" versus "rights of the accused" strike me as perpetuating a system that serves justice only coincidentally.

When I was on jury duty some years ago, it became clear to me that the biggest barriers to justice are the lawyers and the judges, as well as the legislators who create the laws.  I was surprised and very pleased by my fellow jurors, who uniformly tried to do as good a job as possible within the confines of the system.  At the time, it seemed to me that the legal system was designed to thwart justice, not serve it!  I don't know of any simple fixes for this problem that I can recommend, but becoming increasingly polarized into "tough on crime" and "easy on crime" camps isn't very useful in our national struggle to achieve a criminal justice system that works for everyone, including the accused as well as the victims.

A similar problem exists regarding the social welfare system in the USA.  There are those who would eliminate the whole system in order to prevent even a single instance of welfare cheating, and they clash with those who would make eligibility easier to qualify for and expand the eligibility list.  This argument has been cast by some in terms of the futility of eliminating poverty.  It's true that there will always be poor people, and some of them choose to remain poor because they get support from the social welfare system.  But the real purpose of the welfare system is not to eliminate poverty - rather, it's to provide humanitarian support to those who would otherwise find themselves unable even to survive for lack of sufficient income.  Characterizing welfare as a program to eliminate poverty is simply a straw man argument that only serves to polarize, not solve the problem.

This debate has become increasingly ugly in the "conservative" and "liberal" camps.  It has become entangled with the whole range of issues that describe the collective platforms of these opposing points of view.  I find it really bothersome that anyone would adopt wholesale the array of policies spouted by pseudo-pundits and politicians identified with the conservative and liberal positions.  The very words conservative and liberal have become hopelessly ambiguous and, in my view, increasingly irrelevant to today's politics.  There's no political party candidate that coincides precisely with my views on a variety of issues, and neither of the two major parties have ever entertained the candidacy of a person who seems even remotely acceptable to me.  Is this a path to solving our problems?  Can we resolve the clash over social welfare by each side labeling the other with emotional epithets?  Is it "socialist" to support the notion that our society should provide for the welfare of the inevitable disadvanted part of our population?  Is it "fascism" to seek to reduce the role for government support of those disadvantaged?  Is it realistic to expect candidates to match us as individuals, point by point and issue by issue?  We can never resolve this issue in a reasonable way without compromise - a historic cornerstone of American democracy in the past.

Now we collectively seem to have lost our commitment to compromise as a political solution.  From where I sit, both parties engage in legislative and executive activities primarily as partisans, not elected officials serving the needs of all their constituents.  We traditionally have been a pluralistic society, treasuring freedom of expression for the reason that no one has a stranglehold on truth and understanding.  The GOP seems especially inclined to create a monolithic society, not a diverse one.  If you have a different viewpoint, you're accused of being a socialist and marginalized.

I'm not whining about "Why can't we just get along?" - the point is that it's becoming more important than ever to embrace the idea that not everyone agrees about things.  If the majority accept position A, that doesn't mean that position B supporters get nothing and are pushed to the edge of extinction, to say nothing of supporters of positions C, D, E, and F!  Our two-party, bipolar system, which is not constitutionally-mandated, seems to be increasingly destructive and useless.  Americans need more alternatives than what we're being offered by the two-party system!


Roger Edwards said...

Believe it or not, I can sympathize with your plight as expressed in that entry, despite occupying a place far-removed from yours on the sociopolitical spectrum.

Like you, I never have voted for the "ideal" candidate. For me, most Republicans are not conservative enough, fiscally or socially, and the Libertarian candidate (who also has positions I don't like) usually stands no realistic chance. My "ideal" candidate doesn't exist, and if he/she did, realistically would be considered "extreme" enough by the majority to garner a feeble popular vote in most elections. I know this. As such, I engage in compromise by the mere act of holding my nose and voting for the one of two turds on the ballot whose positions stink the least.

However, I'm not convinced yet that a multiparty system would solve the problem. There are some disadvantages. For example, we'd have that many more fragments and factions infested with special-interest lobbyists and tussling over the same sized pie, with no greater or lesser need for compromise. Think of three-, four-, or five-way fighting, instead of two. Think Italy.

Many more "fringe" candidates would have a shot to win the Presidency, for example, with a decided minority of the vote. That *could* be good for diversity's sake, but... It also would be easier for a slick, populistic, quasi-messianic charlatan to arise from nowhere and capture the office, Hitler-style, to the severe detriment of our democratic republic. [And no, I'm not one of those "extremists" who believe that's Obama. He's much too hapless and wishy-washy.]

Some advocate elimination of all political parties and holding a "runoff" with two elections: 1) All candidates who qualify in a supermajority of states, based on verifiable petition minima, and 2) The top three finishers from stage (1). I've warmed to that imperfect but intriguing idea more and more with time.

Chuck Doswell said...

I prefer my modest proposal for a solution: