W e are seeing what happens when ideologues chew up and spit out our politics: 24/7/365 electioneering has virtually destroyed our federal government’s ability to govern. (C-SPAN last week launched its Road to the White House 2016.)
In a democratic system, the politics of governance — as distinct from the politics of elections — really matters. Through the politics of governance, we air our differences and move forward through compromise.
We seem to have lost this distinction.
In the words of the Economist: Washington has “its knickers in a twist”. More seriously, we are heading once again toward more brinkmanship regarding the debt limit: this time tied to tax reform
The Economist warned
in the last fight over the debt limit.
Unless Democrats and Republicans close their differences on taxes and spending, and Congress votes to increase the federal debt ceiling, the United States may default on its debt, an eventuality with incalculable consequences for the world economy as well as America’s.
To get out of this quagmire, Congress needs to agree on a package of both cuts and revenues. The retired Republican Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles have shown us the outlines of a deal
. We have the largest military in the world, the most expensive health care system, and our population is aging. We need to find new ways for the federal government to do its job. At the same time, we have one of the lowest tax burdens in the developed world.
Our Washington politicians should be able to figure this out.
But we are not going anywhere if our democratic process grinds to a halt.
The strength of our democratic system is the stability that comes from balanced diversity. Whether you are taking three branches of government, the due process clause of the Constitution, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or the unique balance of our federalism, our system is carefully (miraculously, really) open to diverse voices.
The weakness of our democratic system is that we are vulnerable to intransigence. A determined, small minority can, sadly, grind matters to a halt. Congress has proved this point time and again. They can get their knickers so twisted, that they cannot even walk.
A sad state.
In our national politics, our leaders have lost the capacity to do complex thinking together. We are, instead, caught in the perpetual campaign. Neither party has the capacity to govern. Why? Because they have lost the skills of complex thinking and compromise. (This is not a new problem — I wrote about it in an article in 1975 in the Harvard Journal on Legislation
, “Energy Tax Legislation: The Failure of the 93d Congress
As the capacity of Congress to govern has gradually deteriorated, our national capacity to manage complex matters has evaporated. We have no sensible budget strategy, no energy strategy and our tax code is a mess. Democrats completed a “cram down” on health care policy, and it’s not clear where that is heading (except, obviously, to the courts).
Now, the risks of this political brinksmanship are quite real, and that has scared some.
Even the business lobby — folks who share no small measure of responsibility for this mess — appears to have had enough. Scared that ideologues might actually cause real economic damage, they are now telling our national leaders: “get your job done“.
Let’s step back.
If we look at an historical chart of tax revenues as a percentage of GDP, we can see that federal receipts as a percent of GDP are not out of whack. Indeed, they have been declining for some time.
A similar chart of tax revenues as a percentage of GDP is compiled here.
OECD data through 2006 is available here. It shows that we are one of the lowest taxed of the advanced economies. A list of tax burdens by country is also available here.
It’s hard to look at this data and not conclude that there is ample room for compromise. Instead, we get respected political columnists telling us about the facial sneers of one of our “leaders”.
Sadly, ideologues will not move our democracy forward. They never have. As Garrison Keillor once wrote, “Our democracy was not built by angry people.”
Where do we go from here?
It’s time for us to build new pathways. These pathways, I am convinced, will emerge in regions around the country, where civic leaders take their responsibilities to govern more seriously than we see in Washington these days.
These regional leaders are finding new ways to build stable, enduring and pragmatic collaborations. They are learning how to do complex projects when, it seems, no one is “in charge”. They are learning how, through collaboration, they can create the shared value that forms a vibrant civic economy.
Pragmatists understand the value of our civic economy. Ideologues — whether left or right — do not even recognize its existence.
In the end, in a democracy, we see that civility — our respect for each other — is essential to building our civic economy. The disciplines of civility are strategic. They form the foundation for compromise, and it is through compromise that we move our democracy forward.
It has always been that way.