There is widespread lamentation over the current gridlock in politics. After a quick shot of elation for Democrats – which I wholeheartedly shared in – Washington went back to the status quo. Commentators point out that the same players are sitting in the same seats. The chances for tax reform and a solution to immigration may have improved slightly, we are told, but with more than fifty Tea Party members in the House and battle lines drawn everywhere on ideological lines, the news isn’t good for successful negotiations.
I accept all of that, but it seems to me that gridlock is good for the progressive side, and liberals shouldn’t join the general lamentation. Gridlock is the political equivalent of a medically induced coma. Basic life functions continue while a critical disease runs its course. Being in a coma isn’t good for anyone, but when the disease is worse, a coma may be the only way to return to health.
In Washington’s case, the disease is right-wing reaction. Its effects have been dire already: drastic economic unfairness, the Iraq war, control of Congress by lobbyists, intractable ideologues infecting the democratic process, and a draconian war on drugs that has filled our prisons comparably to what Stalin did in the Gulag (according to Fareed Zakaria, America’s prison population has tripled since 1980, almost totally due to drug convictions, and we now incarcerate people at ten times the rate of other developed countries).
To halt the spread of reactionary policies, gridlock brings a coma-like stasis. But the other part of an induced coma is that nature takes its course to heal the patient. That is happening, too. The re-election of President Obama held back the worst aspects of the right that Romney pandered to. It allowed four more years for demographics to continue to outnumber the Republican base (the party has already lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections). Less noticed but still good is the rise of a younger generation of Christian fundamentalists who do not share their parents’ rigid Bible belief.
When all these forces have come to fruition, the state of gridlock should have run its course in twenty years, ten if we are lucky. It took thirty years for the electorate to swing right, gradually driving out better candidates because they were unwilling to be vilified and face Willie Horton tactics. Ten years is only a fraction of that. Scorched-earth tactics didn’t defeat Obama. Good candidates may take heart and start to return. For the time being, the crystal ball isn’t clear. Human nature is stubborn, and there is no viable reason for the intractable right wing to cede power in Congress. They suffered pain in the last election, but pain doesn’t create change, as history abundantly shows us. Situations that contain implacable divisions (Sunni versus Shiite, Israel versus the Palestinians, slave-owners versus abolitionists) don’t heal; they fracture.
The good news for our body politic is that we have already broken the fever. Not in the way that Joe Biden called for when he foresaw the House accepting compromise after Obama won. They won’t, just as the Republican Party won’t become less radical through defeat. At best the two sides will lurch toward partial solutions with teeth grinding all the way. The rise of reactionary forces over thirty years has depended on legitimizing the worst in human nature, the side where irrational prejudice, resentment, and fear are lurking. If we are honest with ourselves, each of us feels these impulses.
But the essence of progressivism is to resist the worst and nurture the best through idealism and fair-mindedness. By acting like an adult and never giving way to revenge, Obama has used the patient tactic of leaning against a wall until it moves. He is counting on the electorate to wake up to its better nature. If he succeeds – and I think he will – Lincoln won’t be the only President from Illinois who was a man of destiny. Obama is presiding over a shift in consciousness that will restore American uniqueness by curing us of a malady that was heading toward disaster.