Can we re­dis­cover our ca­pac­ity to forge a con­sen­sus?

Ruth Mar­cus says the mer­its of bridge-build­ing in pub­lic life should not be a de­bat­able propo­si­tion.

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Mar­cus’ email ad­dress is ruth­mar­cus@wash­

Does the United States en­joy a re­silience ad­van­tage com­pared to Euro­pean democ­ra­cies? Dur­ing the long months of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, I have been cling­ing, if with di­min­ish­ing for­ti­tude, to the con­vic­tion that our con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem and demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions will shield us through the worst. So it was at least a bit re­as­sur­ing to hear former Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair ob­serve that he is more bullish about democ­racy in the United States than in Europe.

“Our chal­lenges over at our side of the wa­ter are just as great, if not greater,” Blair said dur­ing a visit to The Wash­ing­ton Post on Thurs­day. “You have a re­siliency in your in­sti­tu­tions that will pull you through.”

There was, ad­mit­tedly, a bit of straw-grasp­ing in my overea­ger re­sponse to Blair’s as­sess­ment, and he wasn’t ex­actly brim­ming with con­fi­dence when asked to elab­o­rate. “I might be com­pletely wrong by the way, but I just feel with Amer­ica that you’ve got suf­fi­cient checks and bal­ances within your sys­tem,” Blair said. “My ex­pe­ri­ence of Amer­ica is that it usu­ally works its way through its prob­lems. I may be com­pletely wrong” — there he goes again! — “but if you look at the Euro­pean situation, it’s less clear to me that the same sort of re­silience is there.”

Oh well, com­par­a­tive re­silience is bet­ter than none. Sure, there’s rea­son to worry. The Repub­li­can Congress has proved exquisitely spine­less. The in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary may be fleet­ing, as Trump, so of­ten in­com­pe­tent in ex­e­cu­tion, ef­fi­ciently stocks the courts like so many trout ponds.

Still, as Blair went on to point out, the United States is en­joy­ing a strong econ­omy while Europe strug­gles with “struc­tural eco­nomic is­sues,” in­clud­ing the un­re­solved Brexit. Sim­i­larly, he noted, the U.S. im­mi­gra­tion de­bate, how­ever poi­sonous, looks mild by com­par­i­son to the Euro­pean di­vide.

To lis­ten to Blair is to be re­minded of a dif­fer­ent, al­most an­ti­quated, pre-pop­ulist mo­ment, when Blair in the United King­dom and Bill Clin­ton in the United States pur­sued a mid­dle­ground, Third Way ap­proach to bridg­ing the left-right di­vide. The last few years have wit­nessed the trans-At­lantic emer­gence of pop­ulist en­ergy on both ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum and the hard­en­ing of tribal iden­ti­ties. So Blair’s self-de­scrip­tion as an “unashamed glob­al­izer,” his as­ser­tion that “the West is about values and not just about in­ter­ests,” and, most of all, his ar­gu­ment that it is im­per­a­tive to “reignite the cen­ter ground of pol­i­tics” carry — for me, any­way — a mourn­ful un­der­tone.

Can this strat­egy still work — or is it a fusty ar­ti­fact des­tined to be dis­missed as Clin­to­nian tri­an­gu­la­tion rather than prac­ti­cal prob­lem-solv­ing? What would it take, given the cur­rent frac­tured, an­gry state of our pol­i­tics, to ar­rive at the point of cross-par­ti­san, mid­dle-out co­op­er­a­tion? Are we con­demned to go through years, if not decades, of tribal bat­tles be­fore it be­comes po­lit­i­cally safe to try, again, a more sen­si­ble ap­proach? Is that even pos­si­ble, in an age of in­stant in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness?

In the United King­dom, af­ter all, what Blair de­scribes as a “changed Labour Party” is led not by Third Way Blair but by the far more rad­i­cal Jeremy Cor­byn. In the United States, the Repub­li­can Party of Rea­gan and ideas has de­te­ri­o­rated into the party of Trump and ego, while the Demo­cratic Party is in the nascent stages of its own ide­o­log­i­cal and gen­er­a­tional trans­for­ma­tion.

“On the ac­tivist side, it’s go­ing to be a fight,” Blair said. “Some­times I wake up and think, ‘It’s all go­ing to be all right,’ and some­times I think, ‘No, the world is go­ing to have to ex­pe­ri­ence this be­fore it un­der­stands it’s a bad idea, the whole pop­ulist thing.’

“But we’ve got to re­ha­bil­i­tate the pol­i­tics of build­ing bridges,” he con­tin­ued. “If you’re with the Democrats here you’ve got a choice: You can stack up your votes ... and hope that our votes over­whelm their votes . ...

“My strat­egy would be to work out not why the peo­ple who may turn out for the ral­lies and lead the chant­ing vote in that way. But there must be in­de­pen­dents that voted this way, so what was mo­ti­vat­ing them? ... If you don’t build those bridges, then your ac­tivist base just keeps get­ting re­in­forced.”

The mer­its of bridge-build­ing in pub­lic life should not be a de­bat­able propo­si­tion; the pol­i­tics of it should not ne­ces­si­tate re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Whether we can re­store any ca­pac­ity to forge con­sen­sus will also help de­ter­mine whether Blair is cor­rect about our na­tional re­silience, com­par­a­tive or ac­tual.

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