I have a suspicion that some of what the Democrats are attempting to accomplish with the energy bill that I wrote about yesterday, and with some other legislative projects of theirs, are instances of political maneuvering.
And I am not going to simply condemn the Democrats for this. Karl Rove made the type of political maneuvering here a central part of his political strategy. In fact, an argument can be made that the Republicans, on the whole, are better than (read, "more effective" as opposed to "more virtuous" - because I will argue that this trick is far from virtuous) at this game.
Imagine this: A group of politicians want to promote their party and solidify its hold on political power.
They go to the pollsters, who tell them that they can make a particular policy very popular. It also happens to be very destructive. Let us further assume that this policy can easily be expressed in five-second sound bites and bumper-sticker slogans that people will readily accept (because they want to believe it is true). Its destructive nature requires a more in-depth understanding of the subject matter.
We can imagine that this policy is either legislation to force down the price of gasoline at the pumps (with the corresponding harm done to the environment, investment in alternative energy, and greater use of and dependence on foreign oil).
Or we can imagine that this is legislation allowing the President to keep 'suspected terrorists' locked up indefinitely without a trial, with its corresponding effect of telling dictators around the world (including anybody with ambitions of becoming a future American dictator) that they can keep their political enemies imprisoned forever without trials, and can do the same to any American citizen they happen to find in their country, simply by using the term 'enemy combatant'.
Explaining the problems with this policy to the people would be expensive and time consuming - and most people will not listen anyway. They do not have time to listen. They have lives to lead and cannot afford to sit down and spend hours going over the complex economics, physics, psychology, biology, climatology, or whatever other science is involved in explaining why this policy is bad.
Let's be honest. Many (most) people think that they can know everything there is to know about the merits of a law from a one-sentence description of its content.
So, the demagogues in Congress write this policy up into law, and they put it out on the floor for a vote.
Now, you are a Congressman who is interested in serving the people - in making their lives better. You have studied this issue in detail and you know exactly why it is a bad idea. You could vote against it. However, this is exactly what your political opponents are waiting for. They are already preparing their television advertisements, distributing their talking points among sympathetic bloggers and reporters, and producing their advertisements that say, "Candidate X voted against this policy. It is time for a change."
I am assuming that the politician in question knows that this law is destructive. In some cases, the politician in question might be hoping that the other party will veto or defeat the legislation. This way, they get the benefit of being able to run their campaign that says "Candidate X vetoed or voted against this policy." Yet, they do not have to suffer the guilt of having what they know to have been a destructive policy enacted into law.
I am assuming, perhaps rashly, that the Democratic leadership knows of the harms that would come from forcing companies to lower gasoline prices. I am assuming that they know that Bush would veto the bill and that the Republicans in congress would vote against it. I am assuming that they know that they will be able to make a lot of five-second sound bites about how the Republicans are for Big Oil and against the common person wanting to buy gasoline for their car. I am assuming that they do not care about the fundamental moral viciousness of playing this type of game.
I am not so sure that the Republican leadership knows of the evil of telling the dictators of the world that there is no evil in arresting whomever they consider a threat and imprisoning those people for however long the leader wants without any obligation to hold a trial. The most current batch of Republicans seem to be particularly dim-witted enough that they may not be able to think through the consequences of their action. The fact that they lack the capacity to think through the climatological, geological, and biological data to see the overwhelming evidence in favor of global warming, an 4.5 billion year old Earth, and evolution suggests that they lack the ability to understand why civilized people would object to indefinite confinement. Yet, I would still argue that there are at least some Republicans who understand these wrongs, and support such legislation anyway, entirely because it is politically useful.
The harm done by these people not only rests in the fact that they are promoting their own interests through actions that are immoral - that wrongfully harm others. The harm also rests in the fact that their 10-second sound bites, bumper stickers, and headlines promote ignorance over understanding. They weaken the people's ability to recognize and promote good policy by feeding them this propaganda - all for the sake of making the feeders more powerful.
There is non easy answer to this problem. We may well have set up our institutions in such a way that no honest politician can get elected. Then what? Does the morally conscientious politician go along with the system, play the political games, and advocate policies he knows are harmful because he knows that only such a politician would be elected? Or does he play fair and honest, knowing full well that this means he will be defeated (or he will not win in the first place) and allow others who are willing to harvest political power by advocating harmful policies control the reigns of government.
This is a moral dilemma. This is a situation where a good person - a moral person - is not going to like any of the answers.
I am not going saying that the Democratic Party should go ahead and perform these types of political stunts, now that they have control of Congress. In fact, the moral case is clear - these types of stunts are wrong (something that no good person would participate in).
However, there is a second question to ask. Not whether the legislature should or should not participate in these types of tricks, but whether we - those who comment on their actions - should help them, for the sake of mustering votes for the party.
I will not help them. I will continue to point out whether a particular policy is sound or unsound in fact, without regard as to whether exploiting public ignorance on the subject is politically useful. But, then, I have the luxury of being in a position where I don't need people to vote for me in two years.