Monday, March 15, 2010

Unfriendly rivals

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 15, 2010

By Bill Kraus

The occasional column that Sally Quinn (Ben Bradlee’s wife) wrote for the Washington Post was mostly about politicians socializing after hours.

The column has been discontinued.

Politicians don’t do that anymore. This is due in part because most of them are commuters who go back to the state or district on weekends and probably spend whatever remains of their leisure time dialing for campaign dollars.

What has really happened though is that camaraderie has disappeared.

The days when the adversaries fought in public and socialized in private ended when adversaries became enemies, and what I have described as the “Arena Effect” no longer existed in politics the way it used to and still does in sports. The effect is based on the respect and empathy the participants in contests have for the effort they have gone through to get into the game.

They may have different philosophies, goals, objectives, but they could disagree without being disagreeable.

The decline of civility and sociability can be traced in Wisconsin to the time when two of the state’s most accomplished and smartest legislative leaders were ascendant.

Chuck Chvala was Senate Majority Leader and Scott Jensen was the reigning Speaker of the Assembly.

They preached and practiced a kind of disassociation.

Early in their ruling tenures a freshman representative and his fellow neophytes from both parties convened regular breakfasts with cabinet members and leaders of the administration to learn more about the way this government worked.

When he learned of this, Jensen told his members not to participate. Chvala did not object.

The theory, if there was one, seemed to be that it’s better not to get to know, or to be friendly with the people on the other side. This might somehow weaken your resolve to enact your agenda. From the outside though it looked less like agenda advancement than a pursuit of advantage pure and simple.

The collateral damage was that compromise which at one time was regarded as the real art of politics became a dirty word. Worse yet, the law of unintended (at least I hope it was unintended) consequences took hold, and disassociation became demonization.

It is hardly surprising that the rise of the “my way or no way” ideologues, the immutability of the status quo, a “when the solution is proposed, the problem goes away, and the solution becomes the problem” world where true believers, extremists, and yellow dogs prevail, became the political norm.

In a remarkable 1908 book titled The Process of Government, Arthur Bentley declared that there is no general interest, that politics is about special interests. Maybe it is. But the interests he saw at work clearly were not the kind of tribal Hatfield v. McCoy interests that are bringing our democracy to a screeching halt.

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