March 2, 2007

We need another Barry Goldwater

The Wallflowers were right: “There’s got to be something better than in the middle.”

In today’s politics, “ideologue” is a dirty word most often applied by liberal groups to condemn “right-wing ideologues.” But is there anything wrong with being an ideologue or having a strong, consistent set of beliefs? More and more, the answer seems to be yes. Take our local hero, Barack Obama, who appears to be running on a platform of “hope.” Obama’s appeal is not based on good policy ideas for the country, but rather on his impressive oratory skills, his perceived ability to reach a consensus, and his generally personable and impressive nature. These are all important qualities to have in a leader—particularly when you consider our current president’s inability to convey his ideas—but ideally they would only complement a politician with great ideas.

Despite what the media may say, partisanship is not always a bad thing. If partisanship refers to the vigorous debate between competing ideas and philosophies, then it is a good thing. The right policy does not necessarily lie in the middle of the left-right continuum. Furthermore, if our country begins to implement “extreme” policies, perhaps we will start to learn which policies work best. If, for example, we apply socialism and see that it doesn’t work, then at least we’ll know that capitalism might be the better way to go.

Probably more important is making sure that our politicians go into politics for the sake of ideas, rather than for the sake of power. Corruption cannot be eradicated by limiting spending on political campaigns, limiting gifts by lobbyists, or, worse yet, instituting draconian limits on political speech. The best cure for corruptions is ideology. Of course, most moderates aren’t corrupt—and some ideologues are—but it makes sense that those who go into politics to fight for their causes are much less likely to be seduced by the power that comes with public office.

It won’t be easy to break the grip of “moderation” in politics; with a two-party system it is natural, and probably unavoidable. Since the average voter is decidedly non-ideological and moderate, politicians must cater to the middle in order to be elected. But there is one solution: Probably the best—or at least the most practical—way to restore ideology in politics is to end first-past-the-post (i.e. plurality) voting. Under first-past-the-post voting, the candidate with the most votes, regardless of whether or not he receives a majority, wins. This is not conducive to third parties, since voters often vote “strategically,” rather than for candidates whose views best fit their own. There are so many better options than plurality voting: run-offs between the top two vote getters, single transferable vote, proportional representation; the list goes on and on.

If America moves away from plurality voting, both third parties and ideology will be strengthened. I doubt there will ever be a third party that ever legitimately and perpetually competes with the main two, even under a new voting system, but third parties will become a threat, since people can vote for them without worrying about “wasting their vote.” In turn, Democrats and Republicans will have to fight to hold on to their ideological base. With disillusioned liberals voting Green and disenchanted conservatives voting Constitution or Libertarian, the two main parties must become more ideological to win elections.

Barry Goldwater, one of the most famously ideological politicians, memorably said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Barry Goldwater has been dead for about 10 years, but the real tragedy is that his breed of politicians has been dead for nearly 20.