Burning Question

For Fred Baumann, Professor of Political Science

With gridlock, polarization, and rancor hobbling American politics as another presidential election year gets under way, some wonder whether the country is facing something essentially new—a system not just struggling but actually broken. The Bulletin called in one of Kenyon's most admired professors and astute political observers to ask about the direness of the nation's straits.

Is the Sky Falling?

Last summer the United States Congress went through a show that resembled an absurdist Perils of Pauline. Though everyone “knew” that we couldn't possibly be dumb enough to default on our debt, it came down to almost the last minute, with recalcitrant Congressmen being whipped into line by their leaders to support a hokey “solution” that merely promised another round shortly. A fine emblem it was for the world-wide suspicion that the United States has become incapable of self-government.

The signs were easy to read: both mainstream media and the blogs in a swivet of partisanship and mutual denunciation, an administration denounced by large sectors of public opinion for being variously radically leftist and pathetically moderate, but which responded with its own high-minded if petulant demagoguery, and a new conservative populist movement—at first dismissed as “astroturf” by the liberal elite—that revived a party thought shattered by the 2008 election into something even more cantankerous than before. And now, finally, we may be seeing the birth of the counter-populism of the Left. Where now, the greybeards lamented, was Robert Strauss, the genial Democratic dealmaker of yore? Where are the aisle-crossing friendships of Senators Hatch and Kennedy, or of Speaker O'Neill and President Reagan?

It seems to me that there has indeed been a ratchet effect operating in American politics ever since the Vietnam War, moving toward greater partisanship, lower tactics, less compromise, more real anger and vengefulness, and above all much greater vulgarity and stupidity. (Remember General Betray-Us, or the accusations of dual loyalty against members of the Bush administration?) Project that into the future, and a nation too angry and demoralized to engage in self-government becomes a real possibility. I found a warning sign in the position of some of the Tea Party, encouraged by Congresswoman Bachmann, in supporting default on the debt. They were bitter-enders because they were sure that any compromise would be a deceit, i.e. they lacked confidence in politics and ultimately in themselves. Pushed a lot farther, this sort of self-doubt tends to lead to the Man on Horseback.

It is important, though, to remember that in the end, the representatives who identified with the Tea Party actually did, for the most part, come around to support the leadership compromise. It was also a heartening sign that the same representatives who thought they had to take a tough line to please their constituents got an earful when they got home about having been obstructionist. So far I am more impressed by the relative good sense and high morale of the American people, and rather more worried by the self-indulgence of the elites in making (and ostentatiously resenting) accusations.

Yet, however degraded our communication and compromise skills are, substantively we are facing a real crisis of institutions and expectations. The sharp edge is entitlements, the promises that clearly can't be kept indefinitely. And it is no wonder that we don't deal with them but know that we have to. “We ought to, but we don't” is, after all, the human condition in sum.

Still, after the 2010 election a panel was held at Kenyon at which I asked an expert colleague if she thought there was any chance of compromise on the debt before the 2012 election. Not a chance, we agreed. From that point of view, a rather more optimistic judgment is possible. We have, after all, begun to address the big questions. Both Bowles-Simpson and the Ryan plan are out there. The debt ceiling theatrics, for all their absurdity, point to an increasing, if very grudging, commitment to do something about deficits. One might want to see, in all our screaming and posturing, the enormous American ship of state turning, however slowly, away from the whirlpool. (And then again, given the supercommittee fiasco, maybe not.)

In sum, I think there are real dangers of the kind of degeneration of our democracy into the mob-and-ideologue politics that so many philosophers have warned against. But we always do everything with maximum noise and fuss. So I am hopeful that under the surface we are finally beginning to pay attention to business, despite elites who have been OD-ing this past half-century on righteous indignation, the most toxic drug in the political pharmacopeia.

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