Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

The Politics Of Intransigence

Posted on: July 11, 2011

Once upon a time, our elected representatives would debate the issues on their merits, on ideology or both.  At day’s end, they would repair to the backrooms, hallways and offices, light up cigars, and compliment each other on the vim and vigor of each others’ arguments.  And they’d chat about the kids’ achievements in school, and they’d brag about the latest accomplishments of the home team.

There was a collegial atmosphere then; “respectful opposition” was the term applied to it.  And it was here, in the smoke-filled back rooms, that the true business of budgetary policy-making (Congress’ primary responsibility), and its legislative functions took place.  Here – for better or worse –  is where the real work got done.

This was not a perfect system, of course, but accomplishments were many.  At the end of a session, you could count the number of actions taken by your hard-working members on Capitol Hill — both branches.

This was the picture in Washington only fifty years ago.

It can be legitimately argued that this era in American politics was either good or bad.  What cannot be argued is that the body of work done then is mirror opposite of that which gets done now.  The question is not one of quantity over quality.  It is of quantity over nothing.

What happened?

In a think piece broadcast last Thursday on NPR’s “Marketplace,” President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, David Frum, posited one reason for the demise of respectful opposition: “Congress goes home for the weekends.”  While at first seeming far off the point, Frum argues that in days past, our representatives moved to Washington, D.C., families and all.  These guys were neighbors; their kids attended the same schools; they formed a community of people with a singular interest: the governance of a country.  You don’t take relationships like this and eviscerate them on the floor of the Capitol the next day.

Campaign rhetoric happened.  “Beltway insider” became a brand to be avoided.  It meant all the worst things about Washington; it meant the member was an integral part of what was wrong with our government.  So the pols moved back home as if to prove their ‘outsider’ status.  Fly home for weekends with the family and constituents; commute to D.C. for another week of doing the work of the people.  But, whereas the homefolk get two days of the week, power-brokers get five evenings of each week.  These, of course, include the lobbyists, special interests, and donors.

C-SPAN happened.  It was 1979 for the House; 1986 for the Senate.  C-SPAN brought the backroom work into the chambers for all to see.  Positions held by elected officials were now clearly visible to constituents.  Any compromises to be made were made in front of all.

Gerrymandering happened.  This darling topic of 9th grade civics classes is nothing new.  What is new is the vigor with which the partys in power are re-crafting electoral districts following each census.  The purpose of redistricting should be demographic balance.  Instead, it is now the assurance of that party’s dominance and re-election.  With that kind of security, why would a member bargain with the opposition party?

SCOTUS happened.  In 2010, The U.S. Supreme Court effectively removed the limits of corporate funding to groups advocating for or against a cause or candidate.  The court’s rationale was that restrictions impaired free speech.  The result is massive amounts of money being poured into smear campaigns (commercials, documentaries, etc.) by corporations through lobbyists and special interest groups.  Think “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” and “Hillary: The Movie.”  Such donation can now be done with anonymity.  We’ll never learn who’s spreading the lies.

The Tea Party happened.  Not unlike other such movements in American history, the  Tea Party’s life-cycle was birth, chaotic absence of clear purpose, and death (the 2008 general election).  Then resurrection.  How?  Why?  This “movement” exists today with guidance and funding from deep-pocketed companies whose only interest is their own profitability.  Their modus operandi is to stir the unhappy constituents with specious information and outright lies.  The hornets are many, and the money is huge.  So members of an entire party are being cowed by a force as willing to sink a Republican ship as a Democratic ship in order to achieve the donors’ covetous ends.  On the flip side, members who ally themselves to this purported “ultra-conservative agenda” find that they cannot lose.  And re-election, after all, is the first order of business in Washington.

Science happened.  Neuroscientists are beginning to understand that certain human brains are predisposed – wired, if you will – toward the political right; others toward the left.  A result, for example, is that a staunch Democrat will ignore charges against his candidate, and harden his support for that candidate even after the charges are proven true.  In times past, better reasoning was used.  Now, there is no reason to reason; the political opposition must be opposed…no matter the truth.  This makes swing voters the more coveted.  If the partisans can’t be redirected, the swing voters hold the power to determine elections.

If despair, cynicism and apathy grow among the electorate, who can blame them?  They’re probably correct in believing that their votes don’t count.  Indeed, with redistricting, a vote doesn’t count if the vote is for the “wrong” party.  Only the ruling party can win.

What, then, will it take to move our body politic off the dime (pun intended)?  Something tragic?  Gabby Giffords.  Something euphoric?  Osama bin Laden.  Something devastating?  “The Great Recession.”  Why should anything work when something as awful as 9/11 brought civility to our midst for less than a week?

If it seems that our governmental world is going to hell in a handbasket, it is.  But as long as Americans continue to draw breath, Americans have the power to effect change.  We have only to collectively resolve to improve our government, gather and speak with one voice, and push harder than the other guys.  It’s our country.

The cost for not doing this is paralysis and anarchy.  America is better than that.

1 Response to "The Politics Of Intransigence"

Wow…that puts a finger on the pulse of American politics! And I feel ashamed of both parties.

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