I saw Bill Maher's show "Real Time" on HBO the other day. Generally it's a good show, and fairly engaging if not marginally informative on current political matters. His panel discussions are the meat of the show, consisting of three guests from different walks of life who discuss politics and current events with Maher himself as the moderator. The level of dissension among his guests can be considerable, and I'm always impressed with Maher's ability to keep the exchanges civil and hence the show watchable. Bill Maher is a liberal, and his audience is almost always uniformly liberal. So it's difficult for him to bring in the truly hardcore conservative guests. The usual situation is something like 2 liberals and one pseudo-conservative (someone at least willing to argue the opposite position). The episodes that include people of actual political clout and significance (politicians, policy wonks, chairspeople of various organizations, and even some pundits) as opposed to those with mere political opinions (entertainers, actors, most columnists etc.) are by far the more interesting ones. Of course, whenever the show does manage to bring on a bona fide conservative, things becomes really interesting.

This week's panel consisted of David Frum, the colleague of Richard Perle, one of the Dixie Chicks, and Wesley Clark. Stated briefly, I have never seen a poorer showing from anyone in any kind of conference or television forum than that of David Frum last week. His performance did much to solidify the notion that those in the neocon cabal are unrealistic, delusional, completely ideological and not grounded in fact, and even malign. Among his blunders were the assertion that ownership of assault weapons is a necessary right in modern-day america, and still in line with the original reasoning of the founding fathers; that gun permits shouldn't be screened by homeland security because guns would never be used by terrorists seeking to create destruction; that gays in the military hurt troop morale (a highly unpopular, though not totally rejected view), although they can and should still be used as translators and such; the inactivity of the U.S. in stopping the genocide in Sudan is due to domestic political resistance and not any input on the part of the administration; the Democrats' image problem with respect to military credibility is due entirely to intrinsic factors and not at all to the Republican's ongoing campaign to undermine it. The image created by these assertions is that of a sadly delusional, inaccurate, and disturbingly self-serving and partisan worldview. It's hard to believe that someone could be apparently that stupid, intellectually or politically, and be a contributing editor of the Weekly Standard and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. As a point of reference for all this, just consider that in comparison Richard Perle seems extremely likeable. Here's a concrete example, just to give you some perspectiv. To be fair, the excerpt is only part of the answer:

Q: I want to ask you a question about Russia...In the time that this administration has been developing a closer and better relationship with Russia, we've seen president Putin roll back democratic freedoms, free market policies now seem to be contested, and especially waging a very murderous and destructive war against a portion of his own citizenry, pushing some of them into Islamic extremism. I haven't seen this country addressing that problem with Russia. You were talking about a moral foreign policy...we should be addressing these questions of Russia.

A: ...I only wish that all of those brave european journalists who got so exercised when America transported captured Taliban prisoners by putting earmuffs on their ears would have some of the same vigilance about abuses of human rights, for the massive death and destruction that is going on in Chechnya. I mean, the earmuff problem is no doubt serious...

The thing is, on paper he's much more competent than he appeared to be on Real Time. He actually doesn't look bad. Granted, his book "The Right Man," which if you don't know it is the one that features the picture of George Bush in a flightsuit on the cover, is by virtue of that fact irredeemably lame in my view. (Apparently, good judgement has led someone to change the picture on the most recent printing.)

The thing is, if you can get beyond the neoconservative's arrogance and complete uni-partisan politics (which is not to say that such things should be overlooked), the truth is that the neoconservatives are paying attention to important things that democrats are just not talking about. Americans seem to like to live wistfully in their isolationist bubble, but I think all the evidence unmistakably points to the fact that there is a serious, widespread, and disturbingly accepted movement brewing in the middle east that is a direct threat to the United States. In several middle eastern countries, it is commonplace for Muslim clerics to append their call to prayer with speeches daily extolling the virtues of Jihad against the west. Given the fact that citizens of Arab nations are kept notoriously uneducated, this kind of uncomplicated message can be made enormously persuasive. The regimes who are supposedly our allies backhandedly fund these activities or are complicit in allowing them to take place.

The literalist interpretation of Islam seems to hold far more sway than in other religions. It's a fact that every religion has its fundamentalists. Every dogma is going to have its idiotic literalists. In the typical religion this is a fringe phenomenon. In Islam, particularly arab islam, the ideology of pre-historic islamofascist triumphalism is actually a threat in the sense of having the potential to become mainstream. Why this is, I'm not quite sure. Maybe it's deep Arab humiliation over failing to acheive its utopian Islamic empire in the 7th century. Maybe it's the widespread poverty and illiteracy of the modern arab people. Maybe the oil economy leads to the wrong people getting wealthy and powerful. Whatever the cause, it would be foolish to ignore this problem. Yet only one of our two august political parties has a strategy, a practical plan, to begin to address the problem in the middle east on any level.

On the other end of the political fence, the head of the democratic party, Howard Dean (a self-flagellatory appointment in my opinion, but anyway) said recently that as democratic president he would seek to involve the U.N. as a primary means to fight terrorism. I don't see how he actually believes that, other than because he thinks it will be popular somehow. Let's look at the facts. The U.N. is an institution founded 50 years ago for the purpose of enforcing international law and national boundaries among nation-states. I'm not going to use the word "antiquated" or "obsolete," because these are just buzzwords that don't convey any information. Nonetheless, I think it's clear that given that the contemporary U.N. manifestly does not have the political clout and power to even enforce within its own domain, i.e. the perpetration of aggressive acts by one nation against another or against itself, there is no reason to expect that it will be able to enforce and protect in a domain for which it is not at all structured. This is not to say that the U.N. should no longer exist, as some suggest (i.e. our intrepid U.N. ambassador appointee). It is to say that it simply does not have the logistical and intelligence capabilities to deal with shady, decentralized, amorphous and anational terrorist networks. Neither does the U.N. have the will to do so, I think all reasonable people can agree. After all, considering its global constituency, most of its member nations either do not face the same threat that has in the most clear terms been extended to the west, or they are directly involved in funding and supporting terrorism and/or the dissemination of anti-western ideologies themselves!

Does this make me bi-partisan? No! On the contrary, it makes me anti-bipartisan. Let me explain... I'm not a political science major, so I might not be able to cite the teachings of distinguished thinkers. But isn't it obvious to everyone that more parties equals less bickering? Staunch bipartisans gush of the merits of the two party system: "It brings everybody together under the same roof!" implying that it encourages moderation. In fact, the opposite is true. When the two parties disagree about something, it appears they need to emphasize their differences, so that one of them doesn't appear to be the party that is "giving in." The result of course is politically self-protective polarization at the expense of prudent policymaking. Whereas, with multiple parties, diagreement is inevitable, thus parties don't have to worry about defining themselves in opposition to some alternative strain. They are able to focus on effective polices without the constant specter of political death vis a vis smear campaigning.

In terms of game theory terminology, isn't it true that the dominant strategy in cynical politics is to define yourself as oppositely the other party as possible? Consider that there are three ways to win votes and support in politics. You can steal your opponent's supporters. You can rally a dormant portion of your own base. And you can convince independent, variable, or non-participating voters to come out and vote for you. Consider how the strategy of defining oneself oppositely the other party affects your goods. 1) Your opponent's supporters are rabidly partisan. Even if there are some moderate or equivocal ones, they have no reason to "switch horses" for a party who is professing to do essentially the same thing as what their party is already doing. 2) Your own base is rabidly partisan. The more it sees its party "challenging" the party in power, the more it will come out and support it. 3) Undecided voters are undecided for a reason, i.e. they don't find the available options compelling enough to come out in support of one side or another. It is foolish to think that if you come out with a similar message, replicating policies that are already being offered, you are going to change any of these people's minds.

If this is all true that the dominant strategy is to adopt the political alternative, then the more parties there are, the more moderate this dominant strategy will be. Why do we resist applying the same analysis to politics that we have already applied with such success and accuracy to economics?

Of course you cannot expect harmony of views in politics. If anything, a healthy democracy requires ample discord. Yet, harmony and moderation are worthy goals to strive for. It is a paradox, but the greater the number of parties, the greater the opportunity there is for discord, the more moderate the outcomes are.

Aside from the obvious incompetence it breeds, another one of the problems of the widespread, extreme polarization in American politics is that one whole half of the country inevitably thinks the other half is completely delusional and vice versa. This is simply a reflection of how different their worldviews are. Now, it's perfectly fine for a group of people to think that one half of the country is wrong, or even 99% of the country for that matter. But when people start thinking the other side is delusional...that's a recipe for disobedience and lack of cooperation.

In terms of protection of intellectual property, the current two party system is great! No one will ever dare steal any idea or stance from another party. But in terms of effective governance, it is seriously, seriously problematic.

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