Toward the end of his recent State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama grew reflective about the disillusionment with national politics which permeates Washington as well as the country.
He observed in plaintive tones, speaking from the well of the House, "There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn't what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant [campaign] fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the [party] base will react to every decision."
This state of affairs is rooted in the loss of too many moderates, a hemorrhage that spans decades.
I was a congressional staffer during the Carter administration. Many a moderate of that time is long gone. A very short list of the departed includes, in the House, two Republicans, the feisty, pipe-smoking Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey and mild-mannered, admirably effective Bill Frenzel of Minnesota; three Democrats, military reformer Bill Nichols of Alabama; the no-nonsense, foreign affairs maven Dante Fascell of Florida; and the conscientious Lee Hamilton of Indiana, a man of the greatest integrity.
In the Senate were Democrats J.William Fulbright of Arkansas and Sam Nunn of Georgia; and Republicans Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Each one held strong views and was a party loyalist. But they were statesmen too, skilled at judging when to put the nation's interests ahead of political expediency. They reached across the aisle at crucial moments in history, as the Founders intended.
The Founders' dread of partisan diehards led them to forge the Constitution's machinery of checks and balances, the Summa Theologica of our political economy, as every school child used to know. That machinery, balancing the gears among the three branches of government, was tooled to generate moderation from the combustion of political zeal.
Has the equipment broken down? Or do we exaggerate our partisan woes for want of historical perspective? Even George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were vilified in office. We perennially mock our leaders as popinjays and poltroons. It makes us feel superior.
Party spirit produces "bomb throwers instead of bridge builders," in the recent words of veteran congressional scholar Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The Founders knew all about bomb throwers. The authors of the U.S. Constitution scorned partisan zeal and "the mischiefs of faction" that result in paralysis. Just like us, they feared gridlock.
Unlike us, the Founders were well informed and ardent students of history and the classics of political thought. "In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason," James Madison stated in Federalist 55. "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."
Anyone who has seen TV election ads knows how true that is. Reason is a nullity.
Madison decried the great misfortune inseparable from human affairs: "Public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their tendency to advance or obstruct the public good." And moderation is least apt to be practiced when most needed.
Ornstein traces the origins of our partisan dilemma to the late 1970s and the emergence of the permanent campaign. The campaign season and the governing season grew to coincide, institutionalizing the incest of money and politics.
As President Obama noted, national politicians are so busy raising money 24-7 that they have little time to either govern or socialize with one another and develop close personal relationships, as they did when I was on Capitol Hill. Now politicians are lone rangers in business for themselves. Congress is atomized, cooperation pulverized.
When the GOP won control of the Senate in 1980 and Newt Gingrich's Republicans followed suit in the House in 1994, ideological polarization became the norm. It arose in concert with battalions of presidential aspirants who ran mercilessly against Washington, demeaning and debasing the government and irresponsibly stoking public cynicism.
Voters understandably concluded that a moderate, smoothly running government was a mirage. Divided between "red" and "blue" states, citizens set their minds against the federal monolith that politicians deplore as unsalvageable. "Hope and change" buckle under cynicism and opportunism.
The Founders intended the checks-and-balances machinery to foil gridlock. What they did not anticipate was that gridlock itself would become a partisan strategy, a naked attempt to de-legitimize government permanently or at least indefinitely.
Since the 1970s, the dwindling ranks of moderates have been sidelined by polarization and by now they are nearly extinct. The center cannot hold, as W.B.Yeats foresaw.
Ornstein contends, rightly, that moves to demonize and delegitimize government have been funded even more lavishly by Citizens United and by the rise of tribal and partisan media — in particular supine corporate media that rarely challenge candidates of either party to explain why they want to take charge of a government they profess to despise.
Office seekers proclaim they will heal Washington's blighted culture (Obama has learned the folly of that) and face down "the special interests." But the thousands of lobbyists and corporate influence-peddlers who co-author legislation highly damaging to you and me never answer to voters, who can throw out incumbents but not lobbyists. The politics of moderation and a prudential spirit have gone a-glimmering.
What astute analysts overlook about gridlock's origins is We the People. We are as polarized as the leaders we elect, though we tell the pollsters we are heartily sick of partisanship and negative advertising. But the advertising continues because it works. We are not well-informed enough to resist being influenced by it.
We also want to eat our cake without paying for it. We insist on more government services and lower taxes. Politicians of both parties oblige us with the pork barrel. Thence comes the gargantuan national debt of $18 trillion and counting. (Obama did not utter one word about it during the State of the Union.) Lusty consumerism is more important to us than citizenship and civic sacrifice.
Benjamin Franklin, departing the Constitutional Convention on its last day in 1787, reportedly was asked by a woman who accosted him, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a monarchy or a republic?"
Franklin, who counseled against "trifling conversation" (social media buffs beware), replied: "a republic, if you can keep it."
Until educators teach that the hard work of citizenship extends well beyond paying taxes; until we learn that being well-informed about affairs of state is indispensable to good government; until substance is restored to our political discourse; until We the People become serious again, we will have immense difficulty recovering a republic that has decayed into a rich man's oligarchy serving the one percent. It may well be too late.
Paul Mann was complicit in Washington's blighted culture, 1976-2002, as a congressional aide and White House correspondent.
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