If we trace back the accepted opinion that Congress is broken, a turning point came right after President Obama’s first inauguration when Sen. Mitch McConnell, speaking for all Republicans, it seems, said that his mission was to make Obama a one-term president. The intractable divisions that made the fiscal cliff a nightmare – and a ridiculous spectacle – go back much further, as everyone knows.
But David Brooks exploded conventional wisdom when he said that the chief myth in politics today is that a reasonable nation is saddled with an irrationally antagonistic Congress. In reality, Brooks points out, voters don’t want to make sacrifices, and they elect those candidates who uphold their refusal. Republican districts send congressmen who refuse to raise taxes. Democratic districts send congressmen who refuse to touch entitlements. The will of the people is being carried out.
The problem is that the will of the people in this case is stubbornly wrong-headed. During the run-up to the fiscal cliff dive, many commentators said that a grand bargain could be drawn up in half an hour if both sides would just be reasonable. What stood in the way was politics. Yet it seems more true to say that a divided nation is standing against itself.
With many cliffs looming in the future, it will take a crisis every time to provoke both sides to reach a deal, and the deals are likely to be incremental. But that’s okay, because the national will needs time to shift. On the role of government, right versus left is a disagreement that runs as deep as racial inequality once did or the vote for women or the right of gays to marry. It’s worthwhile to believe in process, since the alternative – one side crushing the other – leads to unhealed wounds and long, long resentments.
If John Boehner really told Harry Reid to go f— himself, it’s in keeping with calling the President a liar during his State of the Union address, the birther smear, the use of Willie Horton to terrify voters with the specter of an angry black male, and Nixon’s Southern strategy, which signaled with a wink and a nod that racism was respectable. The whole trend has led to deep divisions because, as I see it, the forces of reaction have profited from the worst impulses in human nature. To be on the good side of that trend means not giving in to it. The same holds true for aspects of reactionary politics that are not so unsavory or immoral, such as dismantling the social welfare state, crippling government, removing environmental controls, and constantly inflating the defense budget. These cliffs are unavoidable until the national will is weaned off right-wing values. It takes time, patience, and a steady moral compass.