Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Collapse of Politics

We like to imagine that we are capable of reason, of thoughtful, fact-based decision-making. I in particular flatter myself that I am a logical man. But I think the state of our politics is yet another bit of proof that we are in many ways only semi-rational beings, crippled by our own unexamined first principles and our loyalty towards our intellectual teams.

The latest bit of evidence I have collected for this theory came last Tuesday, when I was able to attend a Q&A given at Google by New York's junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. This was not exactly a hostile crowd, and I had the sense the senator was somewhat less guarded than she might have been, say, at a town hall meeting upstate. For example, at one point she said (this is not an exact quote, mind you), I think that if we had 51% women in congress, we wouldn't be in Afghanistan or Iraq, wouldn't be in the economic mess we're in. (This reminded me of an old Robin Williams joke: If there was a female president there'd never be any wars, just every 28 days some severe negotiations.") But the point she was trying to make was that women tend to be much more willing to work for agreement then the men of Congress (try not to imagine that calendar...), who are more dogmatic.

So I spent the rest of her talk trying to listen for a single thing she said that showed the least willingness to find a compromise with Republicans, and didn't come away with a single thing. Not, I don't think, because she wouldn't be willing to compromise, but because she's not even really thinking about trying to solve the same problems that Republicans are.

What are the problems Republicans are interested in solving? Right now, the debt, the encroachment of government into daily life, and the challenges facing small business. What are the problems Democrats are interested in solving? Improved social and economic equality, more investment in government services (infrastructure, education, etc), and protecting entitlement programs. Not only are these a completely different list of challenges, but the solutions each side offers will exacerbate the challenges the other side is trying to solve.

Recently, Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry said his goal is to make Washington as inconsequential in our lives as he can. As columnist Jeff Jacoby pointed out in his recent columns, "To a Democrat steeped in the big-government tradition of the New Deal and the Great Society, there could hardly be a greater heresy." That last word is perfect, as we are not talking about political opinion but fundamental belief. Making Washington inconsequential would violate the first principles Democrats bring to politics, just as the relentless growth of government in the last few years, and the corresponding debt growth, is impossible for many Republicans to square with their beliefs about what kind of country this should be.

Even at 31, I feel to young to say definitively if this clash of first principles is that different than the political battles that came before. Certainly the Sixties must have felt equally tumultuous, although that clash seemed more generational than purely political. The only time in American history that seems comparable are the decades before the Civil War, where it became increasingly clear that our leaders had no common ground to fall back upon. The good news is that we're highly unlikely to pick up arms over current political arguments. But it is not inconceivable that at some point, the two sides of this unending debate might, like an unhappy couple, decide that their differences are irreconcilable, and find a way to end this union.

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