Friday, December 9, 2011

Grown-Up Politics

"Most people just want somebody who can articulate their hatreds," David Brooks bluntly observed regarding our electoral process in today's New York Times. That's undoubtedly all too true. It was, after all, a fantical, obsessive hatred of President George W. Bush that helped energize the Deomocratic opposition and create the climate that contributed to the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008. Equally fanatical, obsessive, irrational hatred of President Obama in turn has energized Republican opposition and contributed to the Republican resurgence in 2010 and Repuiblican hopes for 2012.
What this highlights is the modern American problem of the "permanent campaign" that dominates political discourse and especially media coverage of American politics. The problem with the "permanent campaign," however, is that it leaves little or no room for actually governing. Unemployment, income inequality, access to health care, our deteriorating infrastructure and educational system, climate change, sovereign debt, the War on Terror, the transformation of the family and social relations - all these challenges ought to be not just on the list but at the top of any list of society's concerns.
Admittedly, the way the American political system is structured makes it much harder to act effectively than it is in many other democratic countries. That said, our history offers abundant examples of politicians and political institutions acting like grown-ups and effectively addressing the challenges of their time, despite such structural obstacles. Potential for paralysis may indeed be built in by our constitutional arrangements and extra-constitutional customs (e.g., filibuster), but history demonstrates what grown-ups can do when they get beyond an adolescent desire for emotional, expressive politics.

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