Jul 20 2013

Reform Party of California Essays – 4


Political debates you rarely hear

The three foundational essays in this series introduced motivators that drive most modern political action and inaction, success and failure. In Reform Party of California (RPCA) opinion, the track record of the modern two-party system is more failure than success in serving the public interest. Those three sources of incentive, ideology, money and self-interest, contribute. The next few essays will focus on specific aspects of politics and, where appropriate, note the impact of those factors.


Given the vast amount of endless political discourse from a range of sources, one might conclude that it is easy to be well-informed. Despite the appearances, that arguably isn’t reality. Multiple factors are at play. That includes an apparently growing trend for people to obtain information primarily from sources they agree with. Some (most?) conservatives refuse to expose themselves to liberal sources such as MSNBC. Some liberals ignore Fox News. To the extent that such sources are biased, there is some logic in that. Ideological press bias does sometimes color reporting and that often results in distorted reality.

However, there is more than just ideology at work. The press is far outspent and out manned by the sources it tries to obtain information from. Those sources usually conceal or spin to advance their own agendas. In addition, most of the mainstream press is under enormous economic pressure to simply survive. That forces an element of self-censorship into what the press is willing to say and do. This doesn’t heavily affect the soft aspects of what the press does, e.g., soft news about poets, fashion trends, the local restaurant menu or human interest (the cat got stuck up in a tree). More often, it does affect important things the public needs to know, e.g., who cut a deal with whom and how much money changed hands in an opaque, mysterious process of killing legislation a majority of citizens wanted. That kind of hard news information is very difficult and expensive to obtain. Usually no one involved wants to talk candidly because they do not come out looking good. In the face of uncooperative information sources, journalistic standards alone can prevent important stories from being told.

Rhetoric from the two-parties themselves can severely distort reality, especially when the stakes are high. There is more behind that than just ideological pollution. That is also affected by self-interest and an absolute dependency of the two-party system on outside money, most of which is from special interests. Evidence of fact and reality distortion is plentiful and easy to find. For example, there was clear consensus opinion about the first debate on October 3, 2012 between president Obama and governor Romney. That debate focused on the domestic economy. The view from the two-party system and essentially all of the press was very simple: Romney won, Obama lost. Presumably, that is how the majority of Americans viewed it at the time, e.g., because Romney’s approval rating increased based on that performance. The question is whether the simple “who won and who lost” view of reality was accurate. That was the view Americans got from the two-party system and the press, but was that really the whole story or even the main story?

RPCA’s reality is not two-party reality

Despite the unanimity of opinion, there is completely different way to see that first debate. FactCheck.org[1], a non-partisan fact checking organization described it like this: “Dubious Denver Debate Declarations. We found exaggerations and false claims flying thick and fast during the first debate.” A reading of what FactCheck posits the truth to be versus what both candidates told us reveals an amazing gulf between three different realities, Obama’s reality, Romney’s and FactCheck’s. The three versions of reality were very different. Given the incompatibilities between them, common sense would argue that one of those realities was probably closer to the truth than the other two. The question is which one?

Most people at the time believed that Romney won the debate. But was that metric really the most important aspect? Did that incorporate any consideration about what or who best served the public interest? Most democrats no doubt believed that Obama was being the more honest and accurate. That accords with their ideology and/or self-interest and thus their views of reality.[2] Most republicans believed Romney for the same reasons. The press may have assumed that since they broadcast it, that best served the public interest. But, what does this look like if (i) you set aside your ideology and self-interest[3] as best you can and then (ii) assume that FactCheck more accurately described unspun reality than Obama or Romney? From that “clean” point of view, it is easier to see things differently. For example, it is not hard to see that maybe the main winner of the first debate was the two-party system and the main loser was the public interest, while individual outcomes for Obama and Romney were secondary. The press and pundits focused on who won and lost, but there was little discussion of the public interest beyond that narrow point. The clean point of view was not represented.

Of course, in the minds of partisans defending the status quo and probably most of the press, the obvious question is how can anyone conclude that the public interest was not well served by that or any other debate? That is a reasonable question. The RPCA’s answer is fairly simple. First, some unknown number of Americans based their view of reality about the domestic economy and maybe their voting decisions on a reality that was false to some extent. At best, only one of Obama and Romney had it mostly right and FactCheck suggested that both had it significantly wrong. Second, the RPCA believes that basing political decisions, including who to vote for, on false realities is less effective than basing decisions on unspun facts and unbiased analyses. By contrast, both sides of the two-party system believe that their version of fact and analysis is correct and thus best. The decision each voter has to make is whether they believe that is true or not. If they believe the two-party version of reality is true, they then need to decide which version of reality to accept, democratic or republican. Other views from neutral sources like FactCheck without an obvious dog in the fight was not something most people were aware of.

To keep this simple, there are four basic choices here. You can accept reality and policy options as seen through the lens of liberal ideology, through the conservative lens, through the religious lens or through the lens of non-ideological pragmatism. The RPCA relies on the fourth choice as its starting point for discussion and analysis. Despite that, it is not the case that liberal, conservative or religious values or views cannot be accommodated in the framework of non-ideological pragmatism. They can. In fact, they are needed and more than welcome.

Those viewpoints just need to acknowledge unspun reality and then find their way in a competition of ideas. The hurdle each faces is winning in a kind of political debate you rarely or never hear, i.e., fact and policy argued without spin, using unbiased analyses and finding competing solutions based on merit without undue taint from special interest money. Unfortunately, that kind of debate, honest merit-based competition among ideas, is essentially extinct in retail American two-party politics.



A number of conclusions can be inferred from the foregoing. From the clean point of view, it is easy to argue that most adversarial two-party political discourse serves two-party interests more than it serves the public interest. The two are not exactly the same. By contrast, that argument is difficult or impossible for most people to see when events are viewed from the limited two-party intellectual framework. From the RPCA or “clean” point of view, it is time to start thinking more deeply about how we think about politics. Unless we do that, meaningful political reform will continue to be stymied by impasses grounded in ideology, special interest conflicts and/or self-interest.

To loosen the grip of two-party thinking it may be the case that entities like FactCheck should be included in most political discourse and given at least equal time to respond to partisan spin in real time. Something or someone a well-informed, neutral, non-ideological voter advocate arguably needs to be present. Without an unbiased reality check mechanism of some sort, most political discourse will remain a two-party spinfest. The RPCA strives to be such a reality check. Although the RPCA is a political organization, it is the only California political group overtly dedicated to partisan advocacy from the clean point of view.[4] All other qualified parties are firmly grounded in ideology.

A final observation merits mention. Both parties argue that they are staunch supporters of a free and open competition in a marketplace of ideas. The RPCA rejects that. Although, the RPCA relies on it, the marketplace of ideas is essentially dead in two-party politics. Evidence of the dead marketplace includes opposition to California’s redistricting propositions[5], which were intended to make partisan gerrymandering less odious. If the two parties truly believed that their vision of reality was so compelling and true, they would welcome voting districts that favored competition, not districts that favored unchallenged incumbents. In fact, if they truly believed in their own superiority as they incessantly claim, they would have gerrymandered to increase competition and would thus never have twice faced California voters’ rejection of how they did things in the past.

Other evidence of the dead marketplace of ideas is the presidential debate discussed above. Although it might have appeared to be a real competition, the rhetoric was in fact constrained. There was no penalty for spin and no acknowledgment by anyone of special interests or self-interest, e.g., neither Obama nor Romney talked about real tax code reform despite hundreds of billions lost each year to tax evasion. The “marketplace of ideas” in the debate was limited to what party ideology, special interest and self-interest demanded. That is a limited world indeed. To most of the press and Americans, it might have looked like a real competition. To the RPCA, it was at least as much a sham and disservice as it was a service to the public interest.

1. FactCheck.org claims to be unbiased and non-partisan. They describe themselves like this: “We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” The RPCA is aware of no reason to generally doubt their sincerity or the accuracy of their analyses. If they have a different, hidden agenda, it is unknown to the RPCA. The RPCA does believe that there is far too much deception and confusion coming from the two-party system and that is a significant source of both political failure and a crippling loss of trust in both government and politics as a whole. The American public is not as naive as the two-party system appears to believe, hence the loss of trust.

2. Both parties will strenuously argue that they have a firm grasp of reality and that their opposition is out of touch, or something worse, e.g., self-serving, uninformed or naive. Presumably, they argue that because they believe politics and policies based on reality are better than politics and policies based on spin. If they do not believe that, then why argue that their own side is better connected with reality than the other? In view of America’s situation, it could easily be the case that both sides are correct in arguing that the opposition has it more or less wrong. Both sides accuse the other of the same things, e.g., some argue that democrats are naive and some argue that republicans are out of touch, both on the politics of power and views of reality. If both sides are correct that the other has it wrong, then both liberals and conservatives are basing their politics on spin and fantasy to some extent. In RPCA opinion, two-party politics is mostly spin-based.

3. The matter of where self-interest comes into play in RPCA politics requires more explanation than can be provided in this essay. It may be unsettling for many people to set aside self-interest when thinking about various issues in politics. The need for a reasonable balance is understood. This concern will be addressed in another essay.

4. RPCA advocacy differs fundamentally from advocacy in standard two-party politics. The two parties are not constrained by unspun reality and unbiased analysis. By contrast, the RPCA uses all of that as its starting point. That is the RPCA’s framework for understanding reality and formulating policy. It is also the basis from which  individual values are incorporated, which is something that needs to be included in the process. In the long run, the RPCA approach will lead to more efficient and sustainable policies that will better serve the public interest.

5. In propositions 11 in 2008 and 20 in 2010, California voters took redistricting power away from the legislature. They did that despite two-party and special interest opposition. A two-party penchant for gerrymadering and the attendant reduced competition of ideas  does not apply to California only. The democratic and republican parties in most or all states generally do whatever they can to reduce the competition among ideas between them. The gerrymander is often the key component of that strategy. When your voting district is homogeneous, you typically do not win unless you appeal (pander?) to that homogeneity of ideology and world view. There, competition is disfavored because candidates with other ideas invariably lose. From the clean point of view, gerrymandering looks a lot more like self-service than public service. Some argue that the net effect of gerrymandered voting districts is to favor more extreme ideologues. Challenges from the opposing party are not the problem for incumbents. Challenges from people more ideologically extreme than the incumbent is the incumbent’s concern. It may be that from the two-party point of view, the gerrymander serves the interests of the homogeneous group by giving them what they want. The question is, which point of view better serves the public interest – the one generally, but maybe not always, favoring less competition (the status quo point of view) or the one favoring more (the dissident point of view)? There is some evidence that the dissident viewpoint is gaining favor, e.g., California voters twice rejected the status quo. Since both parties are usually very reluctant to even talk about gerrymandering, they presumably believe that at the least, the practice does not look good to the public. That is probably why gerrymanders are done behind closed doors. It is not a matter of making sausage – it is a matter of not cleaning up after your dog, which is a very different thing.