The art of the possible
In 1801, writing to John Dickinson, a fellow founding father, Thomas Jefferson advised his colleague that “if we do not learn to sacrifice small differences of opinion, we can never act together. Every man cannot have his way in all things.” The letter, which comes up for auction this week, was recently excerpted in the Washington Post, with a note which slyly suggested that the US government might profit from its counsel.
The problem, then as now, is that once entrenched, partisanship becomes a habit. It recasts politics as a zero-sum activity and empties out the middle ground by making modest compromises look like surrender. The Hobbesian atmosphere of the current government shutdown is hardly new to the US Congress, but the unprecedented petulance of the executive (the Democrats’ Senate leader, Chuck Schumer, has called it “government by temper tantrum”) has produced a masterclass in misgovernance.
The latest standoff feels like a throwback to the cynicism of the Clinton years, when the president’s “triangulations” provoked Gingrich’s “Contract with America” – essentially, a promise to deny the incumbent almost everything he asked for. With those grievances – not to mention the even greater GOP obstructionism under Obama – still fresh in their memories, it is no surprise that House Democrats are in no mood to compromise with a president who is trying to bully them into paying for his ridiculous wall.
Forty years ago, Christopher Lasch’s book “The Culture of Narcissism” noted the hollowing out of America’s liberal institutions, and correctly foresaw the consequences of their decline. “Disenchantment with governmental bureaucracies,” Lasch wrote, “has begun to extend to corporate bureaucracies as well—the real centers of power in contemporary society …[and the ensuing] “flight from politics,” as it appears to the managerial and political elite, may signify the citizen’s growing unwillingness to take part in the political system as a consumer of prefabricated spectacles. It may signify, in other words, not a retreat from politics at all but the beginnings of a general political revolt.” Time has shown the truth of the first observation, but not even Lasch could have foretold how much the political process would descend into a series of “prefabricated spectacles.”
“The art of crisis management,” Lasch wrote, “now widely acknowledged to be the essence of statecraft, owes its vogue to the merger of politics and spectacle. Propaganda seeks to create in the public a chronic sense of crisis,
which in turn justifies the expansion of executive power and the secrecy surrounding it. The executive then asserts his “presidential” qualities by conveying his determination to rise to crisis, whatever the crisis of the moment happens to be—to run risks, to test his mettle, to shrink from no danger, to resort to bold and decisive action even when the occasion calls for prudence and caution.” Intriguingly, Lasch detected this sort of meretricious brinkmanship in Kennedy and Nixon. One shudders to think what he would have made of Trump.
Across the pond, the spectacle of Brexit is no less depressing. On BBC television’s Question Time, a British comedian summed up public frustration thus: “We’re told [that Brexit] is about returning parliamentary sovereignty, yet when the Speaker intervenes to… return sovereignty to Parliament, we’re told it’s about returning sovereignty to the will of the people. When we’re asked if we can have a second vote for the people, or a general election, we’re told it’s not about the will of the people – it was about the will of the people that one time and now the people need to shut up for the rest of their lives.”
When mature democracies cannot set aside partisan quarrels in the midst of a national crisis, it may seem naive to hope that we can do any better. But against such low expectations, we should recall the hopes of our Independence, in particular the belief that political self-determination would give us the opportunity to avoid repeating the mistakes of the recent past; the freedom to recognize the foolishness of men who try to have their way in all things, and the wisdom, and solidarity, to prevent them from succeeding. Experience is the child of thought, and thought is the child of action - Benjamin Disraeli