I don’t remember what beer it was (or is), but it sold itself by saying that “there’s good enough and there’s better than it has to be.” The implications was, of course, that the beer was in the better-than-it-has-to-be category.
But while reflecting on a myriad of recent political events, I couldn’t help wondering when the last time was that I assumed that something being done in politics was better than it had to be.
In 2004, many liberals and Democrats voted for John Kerry. They, in general, voted for him not because he stood for any good or great ideas, but because he was “good enough.” Maybe they didn’t say “good enough,” but a lot of them said that he was “better than the other guy” and “more likely to get elected [than any other liberal],” both of which amount to “good enough.”
The same thing occurs all the time. Many of the things that the American congress does seem to happen simply because the current laws are failing, and not because they can be made better. Certainly this is not universally true, but the recent increasing of mileage standards for vehicles was surely done more out of fear for what would happen if we didn’t raise them than out of hope for what good could be done if we did.
Now, to avoid sounding naive, I will concede that this is roughly the nature of democracy. That is, especially in America’s two-party system, the only real possibility of progress is on something that is, or at least seems to be, perfectly down the middle.
If one likes the fact that progress is slow, this could even be seen as a positive. After all, because of the rules, a single party in control by any but the widest margins will have a difficult time making sweeping and dramatic changes.
The presidential campaign of 2008 is making this point again. Few, if any, candidates are showing that they are better than America’s now modest expectations. Most emphasize the things they would change, but they fail to convince Americans that they could or would make all the changes we need. They paint themselves as good enough for the electorate, not as better than the electorate requires. Perhaps this is a desire to avoid appearing arrogant, but isn’t running in itself an act of arrogance? Why can’t they at least endeavor to inspire us about the possible?
The fact that Mrs. Clinton makes herself out to be “better” for the job than Mr. Obama is exactly to the point. She’s only claiming she’s better than her opponents, not that she will make the country much better by her standing in office.
On the Republican side, we have much the same problem. Each candidate is merely looking to position himself as good enough for the Republican party and the presidency, not that any of them even aspire to do a truly good job if elected.
And the fact is, to a potential voter, this is incredibly disheartening. The politics of good enough has a tendency to crush any optimist in its path. Anyone interested in sweeping reforms that are seen as more than needs to be done will almost certainly find progress difficult. And as a consequence, citizens often either sulk away depressed and despondent, never to participate again; or they decide to settle for good enough in the political sphere. To accept less bad in place of better. To accept modest reform in the place of necessary systemic change.
Perhaps this is the nature of sustainable democracy, but it still gets me down from time to time.