It’s like watching a two year old shatter your treasured Ming vase with no understanding of the great value destroyed. Two year olds we can forgive. With grown politicians, haughty in their piety, it’s a bit more difficult.
The current Tea Party-driven antics in the United States House of Representatives are distressing. I’m not referring to the RepubliTea’s points of view about Obamacare or the size of government. Don’t get me wrong, I have opinions about ensuring health insurance coverage and carefully conceived “right sizing” of government, but my biggest worry concerns degrading of the system, a meta phenomenon as destructive as it is myopic.
Our federal system was designed to enable the republic to be strong, though simultaneously limited. But the biggest weakness of the “we the people” hegemony is that “the people” are the final guarantors of system integrity. If we don’t demand and reward it, the system will degrade. Let me come at that another way. The Supreme Court has no power except that derived from the respect of the legislative and executive branches. When President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock High School, he was honoring the Supremes’ Constitutional decision. When President Roosevelt refrained from packing the Court, he was honoring Congress’s right to set the size of that bench (albeit, not happily). The obverse of “we the people” authority is “we the people” responsibility that the system operate or is amended as designed.
In other words, the social contract is either to play by the rules or to change the rules—the latter itself having to be done by the rules. (Failing that, the next step is rebellion.) One could convincingly argue that that incorporeal contract is more important than the Constitution itself. Thus it is that no political disagreement short of dissolving the Union is worth weakening or destroying the agreement to play by the rules. Elected officials are in office only by the grace of citizens who are, as I argue, the ultimate guarantors of compliance with those rules.
Yet we are human beings. As such, absent tyrannical control, at our best we are always on the edge of ungovernability. Short term aims trump long term risks and gains. Small-mindedness seems always more energized than thoughtfulness. A win by our political “team” (party) is worth destroying the game. Evangelical fervor, for all its ebullient cheerleading, is its own worst enemy. Borrowing from religion (the far right is highly correlated with fundamentalist Christianity), we are able to cast complex issues in terms of good versus evil. Compromise, though an integral part of democratic governance, is conciliation with evil.
A governmental system is an artificial contrivance, no matter how brilliantly conceived. Contrivance or not, it is forever vulnerable to entropy. That is to say, entropy is the natural state. Uninterrupted effort is necessary to just to maintain what we have so carefully constructed, as stated so well by the Red Queen. We in America are challenged not only to nurture the republic, but to revitalize it continually and, when needed, to improve it.
Small minds miss those points, for the partisan wins of the moment overshadow the larger concerns, especially when political differences are framed as struggle with the devil. We don’t elect political leaders on their intelligence nor on their integrity. We elect them on their ability to parrot back to us our political and other beliefs. And that brings me back to the current paralysis of the U. S. Congress. It’s not that there’s a shortage of legitimate political issues worth intense debate, and it’s not that conservatives are without sensible ideals and warnings. It is that destroying the very system (forget improving it, that is a vanishingly distant concern) that enables debate is a cheap and very dangerous counterfeit of governing.
As I write this post, the country is within sixty hours of failing to renew the federal debt limit (itself an unnecessary Congressional snare). Will it be settled by the bewitching hour? No one knows, though many Americans are stunned into thinking the Republican Party—embarrassed by Tea Party idiocy—cannot possibly allow America to default on its debts. Even I think by a narrow margin that the deadline will be met.
But what if it is? No harm, no foul? Hardly. What reinforcement has occurred for legislative blackmail? What damage has already been done to what was left of markets’ faith in Congressional ability to govern intelligently? What is the rest of the world to think of this irresponsible guardian of the world’s reserve currency? Massive amounts of governance waste will have occurred just to partially recover from this most recent self-imposed cliff-hanger. Much international faith has been lost. Our geopolitical capital has been further degraded. And that’s even if the debt ceiling deadline is met.
So even if the debt limit debacle is dodged, we will not have avoided the childish political proclivities that add more to our regrettable “new normal.” Our Ming vase is in grave danger.
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