The past is always judged in the context of the present, and it’s not always as it is remembered.
There really was no golden age of politics in Washington when everyone got along, the government was clicking on all cylinders and everything was run efficiently and effectively. Incivility is not new in the capital, and some politicians have always said bad things about other politicians.
But because the past wasn’t as rosy as we sometimes think it was doesn’t mean the present isn’t as dark as it seems.
There’s something different about today. While politicians have always been about self-preservation – it’s a basic characteristic of the breed – up until fairly recently there was always a point where you could be confident opposing sides would come together to avert a catastrophe.
At some point, the national interest – or at least what a majority perceived to be in the national interest – would take precedence over political advantage, face-saving and career preservation.
That may yet happen with the impending default on the national debt. But for the first time in my life, I’m not so sure. For the first time in my life, I’m not convinced that our Congress and White House are capable of functioning at the most minimal level of responsibility and am fearful that there are at least some who actually want something bad to happen.
How else to explain the deliberate provocations by a few that rattle world financial markets and put every American’s retirement savings, not to mention many Americans’ jobs, at risk?
By the time you read this, a deal may have been cut to put off the next crisis a few weeks. But that won’t be much encouragement.
It’s nothing short of appalling that we have come to this point.
Extremists are the bane of our political system, but for most of American history they’ve been on the margins. If there were some element of truth in their proclamations, some basis for their complaint, the party closest to their ideology would incorporate a piece of it here and there and assimilate it into the mix and the ones that were still unhappy would bolt into a third party or otherwise fade into political irrelevance. Rarely, however, have the ideological extremes actually dictated the terms of the debate.
It happened in the mid-19th century, and we had ourselves a colossal national tragedy called the Civil War.
The great strength of the American political system has been its ability to find a middle ground, to forge compromise if not always consensus, to bring together competing factions in a process of give and take. That has been the bulwark of our political stability.
Some of the people in our political system today who most abhor compromise cast themselves as great defenders of the Constitution, as if it were somehow not a document whose very existence is owed to a series of compromises.
It is an absurd notion that ignores a fundamental reality of the foundation of the American nation that compromise is dishonorable or even a form of surrender. Tell that to Thomas Jefferson or James Madison.
Compromise is hard work, much harder than the blowhard posturing that is always a part of politics but that seems so much more the whole of it now. But it is as necessary, or more so, than ever.
Sure, there are people egging on the extremists, the non-compromisers, on both sides. They’ve got some of them scared to death for their political futures.
But most Americans are just sick of the spectacle. Those who believe we ought to search for common ground, who believe the nation’s economic health shouldn’t be the plaything of a few egomaniacal political high-rollers, want it to end.
This is not the way America is supposed to work.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.