Here across the sea and in the modern age, Americans seem have undergone a new kind of suspension of disbelief: accepting the absurd notion that partisanship and suborn positioning are rational parts of politics; parts that we must accept in order to maintain our faith in the system as a whole.
The most recent example was the threat of a government shutdown due to the disagreement over whether or not to continue federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Though it didn’t happen, it was only narrowly avoided.
Of course, we’re used to this by now. We experienced a federal government shutdown in 2013 that stopped many government operations for more than two weeks in an effort to defund the Affordable Care Act. On the micro level, Illinois and Pennsylvania are both locked in budget impasses right now that could lead to school closings and the lights in the Illinois Capitol building being shut off. In each case, one party controls the legislature and the other controls the executive branch. This, we’ve convinced ourselves, is a possible consequence when the two parties go to war with one another.
The moment we accept these impasses, it’s easy to focus on which party is to blame. After all, our willingness to suspend our disbelief and accept that it is plausible for government to work this way stems from seeing the two parties pitted against one another. This, we tell ourselves, at least makes a modicum of sense.
What then would we think if one party was unable to pass a budget due to internal conflicts? Would we be willing to extend our suspension that much further?
Turn your eyes to the South then and look at Alabama and North Carolina. Both states were faced with revenue loses and needed to come up with solutions to balance the budget. In Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley had to force the legislature into two special sessions before they agreed on something. A shutdown was avoided, but only by two weeks. The impasse arose because the quite conservative Governor insisted that taxes be raised to cover the budget shortfall, while the even more conservative state legislature refused. The result was a six-month deadlock.
In North Carolina, the Governor and the majority in the state legislature are the same party. Despite this, internal fighting still required three temporary spending measures to be passed before an agreement on the budget could be reached. The Governor, who has been less and less able to keep the legislature in check, tried in earnest to push lawmakers toward a compromise. He had little effect. In the end, it was the longest delayed budget in 13 years.
In both cases, the barriers to an agreement came from within a single party – not from bickering across the aisle. If this seems absurd, why then are we more compliant when it happens as a result of two parties fighting instead of one?
Back in Washington, John Boehner’s announcement that he will resign from Congress and therefore vacate his position as Speaker of the House has journalists and commentators everywhere in a tizzy. Many are curious if Boehner’s departure will mean his party will shift farther right. James Fallows of The Atlantic and Paul Krugman of The New York Times warn that Boehner’s party is more about entrenched positions than it is about governing. This means that partisanship is only the tip of the iceberg; grandstanding from inside one party could mean that what we’ve seen in Alabama and North Carolina might soon become the reality in Washington.
Trying to place the blame, therefore, on one party doesn’t matter. The Republicans are the party under the microscope today, but history teaches us that the Democrats are just as susceptible to crippling internal disagreements.
Boehner’s own words may offer some insight. “Our founders didn’t want some parliamentary system where if you won the majority you got to do whatever you wanted,” he said. “They wanted this long, slow process.”
He’s right. Our system is based on compromise. At times that means compromise between two parties; other times it means from within one party. However, it happens, it is a necessary part of our government. A majority gets elected and is tasked with leading. However, they can’t lead only those who elected them; they must lead the entire country.
Our suspension of disbelief, therefore, has become an issue. We have stretched our willingness to be governed to the point that we will accept such lunacy. It is unacceptable. We should not place our faith in a system that promotes this kind of behavior.
Instead, it is time to reevaluate our entire system. We must look closely at how it became this way and consider what steps we need to take to fix it. I suggest starting with three things. First, we must change how we draw Congressional districts. It is no coincidence that our elected officials take such polarizing views when we draw Congressional districts that ensure the most extreme candidates are elected.
Second, we need to reexamine how campaigns are financed. So many GOP Presidential candidates have dug their heels in to this round of primaries because they can afford to, be it from personal wealth or from outside financing. And it’s not just limited to Presidential politics; spending $100 million on one Senate seat should also strike us as unacceptable.
Third, we have to find ways to ensure more people are voting. Some of that means better voter registration, more access polling places, and better polling hours. However, it also means cultivating a culture that demands positive outcomes from their leaders, a culture in which we refuse to be disenfranchised.
Our system only works well if we suspend our disbelief and accept that circus politics are unacceptable. Governance only works if, when faced with such incredulous behavior, we stop and question the entire system.
Looking back to Coleridge, one of the poems he penned for Lyrical Ballads was ‘The Dungeon.’ In it, he describes the system humanity has developed of locking prisoners into cells to reform them, a system we have come to accept, but one which Coleridge is disgusted by.
This is the process of our love and wisdom
To each poor brother who offends against us
Most innocent, perhaps -and what if guilty?
Is this the only cure? Merciful God!
Each pore and natural outlet shriveled up
By Ignorance and parching Poverty.
It's time to step out of the dungeon of government we’ve tolerated for so long and walk into the sunshine where we can begin to shed real light on our problems and come up with unrestrained solutions.