The legislative gridlock over the federal debt should surprise no one. It is the inevitable result of fanaticism in politics that follows on an uprising of voters who don't accept the nature of a democratic political society.
Democracy is a messy, tedious process for achieving compromise on what is best for society. A minority cohort of the electorate has intruded into the political system in sufficient numbers to deny resolution of differences by negotiation and compromise, demanding that only their legislative agenda be advanced or nothing can.
In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison warned of the threat of factions to governance, in particular a faction that is part of a majority that "enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and rights of other citizens."
But Madison held that creation of the United States as a republic - a system in which citizens elect representatives to operate the government - would temper the influence of factions by forcing them through a sieve of representative government. He had faith in "a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be less likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."
It's not what is happening in Congress today. A significant number of elected representatives are intent on adhering to ideological principles in defiance of the public good and rights of others. Notably, the faction in Congress is more obdurate in the House of Representatives than in the Senate. Madison noted that legislators elected by a larger number of citizens are less likely to be "men of factious temperament, of local prejudices or of sinister designs."
An updated analysis of effects of factions on a central federal government notes the potential for a faction to demand its position prevail through "strategic disagreement." The analysis, "Polarized America, The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches" (Nolan McCarty, Princeton University; Keith T. Poole, University of California at San Diego; Howard Rosenthal, New York University; MIT Press, 2006), asserts that income inequality is an underlying factor in growth of factions that hold to intractable political positions - leading in 2011 to political paralysis.
"Strategic disagreement occurs when a president, party or other political actor refuses compromise with the other side in an attempt to gain an electoral advantage by transferring blame for the stalemate to the other side," the three political science professors say.
Hardening of positions that threaten the United States' financial standing might be seen as electoral grandstanding, with McCarty-Poole-Rosenthal observing: "As the parties have become more extreme relative to voters, making the other side appear to be the more extreme becomes more valuable . . . Strategic disagreement leads to the erosion of the remaining strands of common ground."
Commercial media are not helpful, McCarty-Poole-Rosenthal add.
"Exacerbating such grandstanding is contemporary media coverage of politics. Especially since Watergate and Vietnam, the media cover policymaking much as they would a heavyweight boxing match, scoring the winner and loser round by round. In such an environment, both sides are loath to make any compromises for fear of being scored the round's loser. The result is policy stagnation."
Failure to act leads to loss of public trust in the government, with McCarty-Poole-Rosenthal citing other studies that show "a primary consequence of polarization is that it undermines citizens' trust in the capacity of government to solve problems." That is undoubtedly part of the game plan for a faction based on arguments that government cannot be trusted.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at email@example.com. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.