America's Real Political Challenge

Recent budget battles demonstrate a breakdown of bargaining.

While “This Town” insiders ponder winners and losers and revert to “kicking the can down the road” clichés, deeper currents are operating. Those currents are less about federal budgets and public finance, debt ceilings and sequestration, and much more about the condition of America’s democracy and its social divisions. Political parties reflect shifting social tides and often alter their structures, methods and appeals to seek advantage in those shifting tides.

Political power shifts from party to party, but leads to one-party dominance only when times are difficult—the great depression—or when times are relatively calm—the Eisenhower years. Even then, there is often a minority hedge against one-party dominance reflecting Acton’s axiom regarding power corrupting.

We will have unstable government, exhibited in quarterly budget battles, until the Republican Party resolves its struggle between traditionalists and tea-party insurgents. So long as traditional Republicans operate in fear of the minority tea-party faction, and they do, they will be unable to form any kind of negotiated settlement with Democrats in the White House and Congress. For the radical (in the literal sense of the word) tea partiers have decreed negotiated consensus as “surrender.” Thus, no negotiation, no consensus and no governing resolution.

This is most recently true of the budget confrontation in which consensus on domestic priorities could not be achieved until the Affordable Care Act was repealed. But it is also true of our foreign policy, where State Department and ambassadorial confirmations are refused consideration and stacks of international treaties will not even be debated. It is true where a tragic attack on U.S. diplomats at Benghazi is made to seem a conspiratorial cover-up. It is true of queues of federal judicial appointments in cold storage. Taken altogether, this is nothing more, nor less, than an attempt to shut down the national government at many levels simultaneously.

The real divergence between the two parties occurs on two levels: role of government and human nature. Though conservatives want less government, government does not shrink under conservative administrations. Laws governing the environment; food, drug and workplace safety; and finance rarely are challenged, because a majority of Americans favor them, but their regulatory enforcement is substantially relaxed. And taxes are cut, ostensibly temporarily (as with the Bush tax cuts), even though the so-called supply-side theory supporting such cuts has proved to have little if any validity.

The greatest gap between the parties is over human nature. Conservatives have a Calvinistic, the saved and the damned, outlook, whereas Progressives believe in the progress of the human spirit. If you are of the former persuasion, it makes little sense to try to bring up the hindmost because they are fated to be where they are. The government as an instrument of social improvement is either distrusted or dismissed as futile.

To govern is to choose. It is not to choose over and over again. Despite clear and convincing citizen majorities for Social Security and Medicare as the centerpieces of our social safety net, there continue to be efforts, decades later, to privatize or minimize them. A mature democracy cannot continue to contest pillars of continuity and social justice. Courts have doctrines of precedent (stare decisis: to stand by things decided) to give dependability to the law and thus human behavior. A nation that insists on constantly revisiting its major structures is neither mature nor serious.

Domestic policies are the result of debate, reconciliation, and consensus. Times change, and economic circumstances change, and policies and programs must adjust to those changes. But to dispute the core validity of a policy or program repeatedly, especially with the threat of destructive consequences such as default, is not the behavior of a mature, serious democracy. Imagine the consequences of a liberal faction in the Democratic Party demanding that all foreign U.S. military installations be shut down or our government would default on its debts.

There is consensus that changing demographics require reconsideration of the terms and conditions of our entitlements programs, our tax system and our domestic priorities—an effort that has come to be called a Grand Bargain. But such a bargain is unachievable if major elements of that bargain, such as restoration of previous tax rates on the wealthy (before the “temporary” Bush tax cuts), are taken off the bargaining table or if adjustments to retirement ages are rejected out of hand.

Bargaining is what it says, the process of give and take, exchanges of favored priorities, and sacrificing one thing to achieve another. Unilateral demands do not work. Instead of pandering to the biases of constituent groups, legislative leadership is based on educating those constituent groups that they cannot have everything they want.

It takes little imagination, and no leadership, to become a hero to one group or another. It takes great imagination, serious courage and strength of character to explain the very nature of our democracy to those who choose not to accept it.

Gary Hart is a former member of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bjoertvedt. CC BY-SA 3.0.