Saturday, September 21, 2013

The False Allure of Gridlock

© Charles D. Hayes

Pretend for a moment a medical checkup reveals that you may be on the verge of a heart attack if you don't receive medical attention. The matter is urgent. You have one of two options: bypass surgery or a new regime of drug therapy. Both approaches have a proven track record, and you find the choice to be a tough one. But it turns out your opinion doesn’t even count. You see, in this scenario, the country you live in has only two doctors, and the two can't agree on which approach to take. One doctor’s vote can block the other’s. Your only option is to wait and wait and wait. You could die before a decision is reached.
This is precisely the predicament many people find themselves in today. Millions of our citizens are being negatively affected by orchestrated gridlock: legislative stalemate, funds for education cut, construction projects on hold, political appointments blocked, unemployment payments denied, crumbling infrastructure with no money allocated for maintenance, and scores of unfunded or underfunded government programs that are vital to our middle class and to people who are barely hanging on economically. These situations range from inconvenient to life-threatening.
I have friends who take a great deal of satisfaction in the idea of legislative gridlock as a viable political strategy. There was a time in America when I believed their views were justified because it was intended as a temporary tactic, not a permanent solution. Divided government works if politicians want it to work and if they act accordingly. Democracy depends upon compromise and, in point of fact, cannot exist without it.
But when ideology becomes immersed in identity and fuses with the notion that we are right simply because of who we are, the process is no longer democratic. When the parties declare that if you oppose us you are evil, and that the sole objective henceforth is to stop the opposition, regardless of what is proposed, there is nothing to do except wait for cardiac arrest.
Our history makes it plainly clear that neither political party has a lock on the truth of how best to govern. Both liberal and conservative approaches are necessary at times. Some plans work and some don't. But to take the position that everything one side proposes has to be stopped—even if the government is shut down and needless suffering among the citizens will be the result—is a form of political mockery that undermines the democratic process.
Democracy works only if the desire for solutions to our problems can trump ideology. Ideology is something all of us have that can be measured in degrees. But when the rigidity of one’s politics becomes a closed system, any hope of achieving consensus is lost. Our three branches of government are supposed to provide checks and balances, and yet today ideology is so stringent that Congress makes every effort to prevent many appointments to the judiciary from even taking place.
Democracy is a dangerous political system because there is always the risk that it will allow things to happen that will abolish it. Balancing power is a precarious pursuit simply because of what power is. When citizens don't pay attention to political reality, a vacuum exists and power rushes in to fill it, as essayist Isaiah Berlin so often explained.
Our elected lawmakers add thousands of tweaks to the legislation they produce to rig the system on behalf of special interests, who then give their clientele exceptional treatment. When criticized for such tactics, the corporate interests call it "freedom," and if pressed further, "moral truth." There’s a simple reason that Obamacare is under unrelenting siege by legislators, who are themselves under pressure from lobbyists: Obamacare hamstrings the ability of the health insurance industry to profit at the expense of medical treatment.
That things are not as they first appear is one of life's most important lessons. At the same time, it is also one of the hardest lessons to act on—especially when it comes to politics—because we are too often blinded by emotion. People imprisoned by ideology are easy to recognize when they show up on television news as suicide bombers, but they are much harder to spot when they parrot views we agree with.
Most of the problems we face are much more nuanced and complicated than they are made to seem by both liberals and conservatives. Media pundits and politicians offer simplistic explanations to complex problems too often. If we were to delve into these matters in deeper detail, we could discover things that shed new light on the issues and perhaps reveal new solutions. Yet most of our citizens get caught up solely in the emotion and look no further than how wrong the other side is, based upon superficial hearsay.
We can have gridlock in which those with heart conditions get no treatment, or we can try more than one procedure. I would prefer to let either liberals or conservatives try what they think is the right approach (without keeping the other side from voting), and then hold them accountable at election time, rather than let myriad problems continue to stagnate from gridlock.
The sad truth is that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all want pretty much the same things in life; they just disagree about solutions. Contrast their behavior today with the way we cooperate in wartime when we have a common enemy. If we can ever awaken to the realization that our problems are our common enemy, instead of each other, we might actually solve our problems through democratic means and move ahead.
Television interviews frequently feature pundits who offer smug satisfaction about political gridlock, claiming it is better than the alternative. These people obviously are not having chest pains. Supporters of gridlock have one thing in common: they all benefit from things as they are.
If ideology continues to obstruct our ability to function, our future as a viable nation is seriously in doubt. 
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