At the moment, it looks like the US government is going to shoot its economy in the stomach next week. The best we can hope for, it seems, is some kind of face-saving maneuver. The worst? Another recession, or even a depression. It’s hard to see any good coming out of this debt debacle. How did we get here? Who can we blame?
It pains me to say it, but President Obama has to bear responsibility. He waited until the very last moment to propose a way to settle our deficit problems. By taking a cautious “you go first” approach he opened the door to this game of chicken. It’s always risky to take the lead, and nobody can guarantee that you will succeed, but the alternative…. Well, how do you like the alternative?
The Republicans get a heaping share of blame. They invented this game of chicken, thinking they could leverage some kind of deficit-cutting action. But they proved incapable of accepting a compromise, any compromise. As David Brooks wrote a few weeks ago, they aren’t behaving like a normal political party that seeks to govern. They are behaving like a splinter faction that wants to kick the big boys in the shin. They don’t seem to accept that they are the big boys.
Truthfully, though, we the people deserve most of the blame. We have been extremely willing to buy sound bites and applause lines. We have proven allergic to any kind of shared sacrifice. A good many of us have been willing to believe utter nonsense if it suits our mood.
I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington while watching the HBO series on John Adams. Together they serve as a refresher course on American history. The founding fathers were very aware of how experimental and fragile was the republic they founded. They often wondered whether the nation—both leaders and common people—would prove worthy of the independence they had won. And indeed, by the time Washington was in his second term, the polarization and vituperation and silly conspiratorial thinking had reached dangerous levels. Only Washington’s reputation, and a prosperous economy, and some bold and fortunate leadership (Hamilton’s in particular, establishing a viable economy) kept the country together.
We don’t have anything comparable today—no unimpeachable reputations, no prosperity, no strong leadership. We do have 200 years of success, which can breed confidence. It can also breed over-confidence. We need to get serious about politics. It’s not a game.
What does “serious” mean?
It means listening to other views and seeking common ground.
It means not demonizing those who disagree with you.
It means going deeper in complicated subjects, and rejecting simplistic formulations.
It means seeking solutions to problems like health care and ballooning deficits and illegal immigration, not just declaiming about the failings of others.
It means accepting compromise.
It means accepting blame.