The recent budget debacle in Florida can be mined for numerous lessons, whether one is interested in the personal strengths and weaknesses of Florida’s leaders, their personal political and financial interests, or the merits of various approaches to health care, economic development, and governing. Lots of ink has been spilled; gallons more will be. And I’ll be happy to join the flood.
After all, the outcome of this broken budget process will have a profound impact on Floridians, and probably not just for the fiscal year ahead.
But today, reading news from other parts of the country, I’m struck by a lesson in how we think about ideology in this country.
We like dichotomous choices: either A or B. Are you a Republican, or a Democrat? Are you a conservative, or a liberal?
Of course, there’s always the middle position (“independent,” “moderate”), but much of the research on public opinion would suggest to us that this isn’t a third position so much as a moderation of one of the two primary poles on our political planet. One can be a little farther north, or a little farther south, a little closer to Republicans, or a little closer to Democrats, but always, one is orienting toward the political field defined by the polar ends of the spectrum.
Except for the fact that an awful lot of us actually don’t align, issue by issue, with the poles.
This could be because we are often incoherent in our political thinking and – shall we be blunt? – ignorant of all but the most cursory information about the choices before us. Most of us don’t spend enough time and energy developing our political philosophy, or becoming familiar with someone else’s, to have a broadly systematic approach to the choices we face. We use cues (like who is for it, and who against), personal experience (“I once had this happen to me.”), and our social networks (“I have a friend who . . .”) to make snap judgments about the policy in the poll question or the subject of the backyard barbecue debate.
But our seeming inconsistency also may reflect a fundamental truth of politics: it’s not a binary world.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic recent manifestations of the complexity of the linkage between policy and ideology, policy and party, is unfolding in Nebraska (the only state, by the way, with a unicameral and nonpartisan legislature).
Last week, the Nebraska Legislature approved on what I take to be first reading (apparently a second vote on the measure will be required for passage), with nearly two-thirds voting in favor, a bill to abolish capital punishment and replace it with life imprisonment.
This solid red state is positioning to repeal the death penalty, traditionally thought of as a foundational policy of conservative criminal justice.
How can that be?
Senator Colby Coash, sponsor of the bill, put it this way in an interview with the New York Times:
I’m a conservative guy — I’ve been a Republican my whole life. . . . A lot of my conservative colleagues have come to the conclusion that we’re there to root out inefficient government programs. Some people see this as a pro-life issue. Other people see it as a good-government issue. But the support that this bill is getting from conservative members is evidence that you can get justice through eliminating the death penalty, and you can get efficient government through eliminating the death penalty.
Policymaking invariably presents us with complex problems and a multitude of alternative approaches to addressing them. Depending on the specific values we bring to the conversation (e.g., punishment, closure, efficiency, pro-life), people who generally identify as “conservative” or “liberal” may nonetheless find common ground. Sometimes, it will be because they actually share a value (which can be startling to discover). Sometimes, it will be because, despite the different values brought to the conversation, we can agree on the best path forward, because it best addresses our diverse value concerns.
Just as an appreciation of the complexity behind our binary ideological framework helps explain what is going on in Nebraska, it also can help us understand the stalemate in Tallahassee. Though our Legislature is deeply red, different members (and especially different leaders) are emphasizing different values, many (most?) of which are right at home in the conservative collection of values.
More fruitful debate, in and out of the Legislature, might be fostered if we’d drop the chest-puffing about who’s the “real conservative” and focus on what conservatives care about.
It’s a little more complicated to do that . . . but that’s the true nature of good policymaking.