Sunday, July 10, 2011

Political Polarization

The bad guys?

The stalemate in Minnesota behind the state government shutdown is regrettable, but fascinating to analyze.

As Macalester College president Brian Rosenberg put it in a StarTrib op-ed, Governer Dayton has done an admirable job of negotiating with himself. He has retreated significantly from his opening positions, hoping to elicit some reciprocal response from the Republicans. Thus far they have adamantly refused any compromise.

From the standpoint of someone who leans "progressive" like myself, it would nominally appear that Koch, Zellers & the rightwing gang represent the evil bad guys, and that our dear embattled governor is simply fighting for the welfare of the most vulnerable citizens. However, this simplistic analysis may not hold together under examination.

The core conservatives in the Republican caucus exhibit religious zeal with their take-no-prisoners stance on revenue increase. For them to compromise would be tantamount to being assimilated by the Borg. Koch and Zellers are under tremendous pressure to find a solution to the stalemate, but must fear the wrath of their rabid colleagues if they weaken. Plus, they know how to count the votes needed to pass a compromise budget.

I'm no fan of Republican philosophy, but there are forces behind the strident anti-tax hysteria that should be looked at. For the past several decades, there has been an upward trend in the level of state and local taxation. The sales tax was originally introduced at a microscopic percentage, with promises that it wouldn't rise. Many will remember the mileposts that it passed - 3, 4, then 5, then 6% - on the way to the present 7.275% in Hennepin County (we get to pay for the Twins stadium without voting on it!).

I'm certain that the "Minnesota Miracle" has done lots of good, and the taxes we pay go for services that many wouldn't want to lose. However, the inexorable trend of growth leads inquiring minds to wonder if there is a limit before the tax rate hits 100%.

Ostensibly, we are governed under a democratic system. In theory, the level of public spending and taxation should reflect the will of the voters. If the majority enjoy the good life in Minnesota, and can see how their tax money is spent beneficially, then a consensus should be easy to reach.

In practice, the growth in cynicism and political polarization make consensus building far more difficult. Budgetary issues are complex and few understand where the money goes. The sense of distrust and disempowerment grows until it solidifies into something as rigid as the "Taxpayer's Pledge" that binds the core faithful to vote against tax increase in any form.

To his discredit, Governor Dayton has inflamed passions by insisting on a "class warfare" approach that makes tax increases on the wealthy a central part of his message. Skilled leadership and a more appropriate message may have had a chance at successful compromise, but that was not in the cards.

Dayton may have painted himself in to a corner from which no compromise can emerge. Perhaps this was by design, based on shrewd calculation that public opinon will rise up against the Republican leadership and hammer them in the next election. If this turns out to have been the strategy, then the "evil" moniker will need to be spread beyond the Republicans to include the governor's office.

It may be that Dayton's only realistic course at this point is to cave completely and then announce to the state that responsibility for the harsh budget rests on the Republicans. If voters disapprove, they can take vent their angst in the next election. A new legistlature will be elected in 2012, but the governor's term runs until 2014.

We can't forget that this dispute takes place in the midst of a deepening depression, and things could get worse before it's over. What happens if projected revenues fall short of even the Republican budget? Somehow the gap between revenues and public need must be addressed in more creative ways than either party has thus far demonstrated.

The ideological divide that separates Governor Dayton from his 2010 Republican opponent Tom Emmer is vast, and indicative of the deepening partisan rift. Dayton only won by the slimmest of margins. If this is a trend that continues in the future, then it could signal an eventual breakdown in our system of governance. The meme of revolution is circulating within global consciousness. Is the present ideological divide a taste of what is to come? Watch a similar drama play out on the federal level, and Stay Tuned.


No comments:

Post a Comment