April 11, 2011

Color Me Purple

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Just in the nick of time, Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Obama agreed to shave $38 billion off of current spending levels in the upcoming year, keeping the government up and running. Boehner and Obama deserve a serious pat on the back — two weeks ago, when I wrote an article explaining the details of the budget crisis, I admit that I wasn’t too optimistic about their ability to find compromise.

So we waited, a country tiptoeing on eggshells, while politicians deliberated and puffed their chests and bargained. Finally, consensus was reached! Necessity prevailed! American financial recovery was preserved! Along with anyone else, I breathed a sigh of relief.  Then, coming over the horizon, a new deadline arrived: that of whether or not Congress will agree to raise the debt limit by May 15, ensuring that the American government does not default on its credit.

No one, including fiscal conservatives like Boehner, think that it’s a good idea to keep the debt limit at its current level.  Basically that would entail total financial destruction, far past the grave potential outcome of failing to approve the budget. Without an increase in debt limits, the American government will not have the money to pay off past debts. If we default on credit to other countries, the interest and extra payments alone would run taxpayers into the ground — and that’s notwithstanding the fact that Social Security payments, unemployment and military salaries would run dry immediately, crippling citizens on a directly personal level.

Senators, however, are referring to the upcoming discussion as a potential “Armageddon,” sure to incite shouting matches and conflict between Democrats and Republicans. Republican Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) was quoted as saying, “Unless 51 Democrats want to vote to raise the debt ceiling and all the Republicans vote against it, they’re going to have to give us something in the way of a systemic reform.” All 51 Democrats will be hard-pressed to make such a choice, of course, because decisive action followed by failure could reflect poorly on their election results.  So despite the obvious necessity of passing the debt legislation and the fact that the degree to which the ceiling will be lifted has yet to be discussed, politicians’ first instinct is to publicly use the issue as a bartering tool in the larger framework of political polarization.

It has become clear to me in recent weeks that this issue of the country’s finances is really a micro-example of the larger political divide.  Issues being decided at the last minute, endless arguments delaying policies and fermenting resentment in a group of otherwise (mostly) rational adults — these are themes that are highlighted in conversations about the budget and the debt limit.

Two weeks ago I criticized Congress and didn’t explicitly highlight the important dichotomy at play here because I was discussing specifics, well pointed out by commenter “Alan v.” online. That important difference is that conservatives and liberals have two fundamentally different strategies for dealing with the same economic problems — so different that it is possible that they simply cannot be reconciled. Conservatives prefer a more top-down, tax-cut and program-slimming based approach, and liberals seek success through social programs such as welfare and increased taxes.

The fact that on these fiscal topics both sides of the debate seek the same outcome despite their different approaches explains why I think they represent the greater partisan nature of politics today so well.  Instead of an issue like abortion, where two politicians can see it as a different problem — a liberal might see it as a question of civil rights for the mother, a conservative might see it as one of protection of the child — fiscal questions are much more clear cut.  The two sides and everyone in between agree on the problem, but they don’t agree on the solution.  So it’s easy to see exactly where the partisanship is and exactly why it’s happening.

Often viewed as unsuccessful and inefficient, bipartisanship does actually have a positive track record, especially when it comes to necessary budget cuts.  In August of 1996, President Clinton announced his support, along with several moderate Democrat senators, for Republican-sponsored welfare cuts.  The decision was viewed in an extremely negative light — even top advisors in the Clinton administration itself felt that President Clinton had made a serious mistake. The New York Times described the bill as “odious” and The Washington Post called it a “terrible piece of legislation.”  Today, however, President Clinton is credited with moving the American welfare system forward, increasing its ability to move people from the system into paying jobs and, in time, opening up the welfare pool to more of America’s poorest people.

Ideological compromise between conservative and liberal spending policies might be impossible, but practical compromise is not. Maybe the $38 billion isn’t an ideal reconciliation in the eyes of either camp, sure. But it sure as hell is a practical one.  Those dollars won’t be spent and that’s that: not perfect according to the Left or the Right, but change nonetheless.  Maybe not the desired compromise, but it’s a medium that needed to be achieved. President Clinton negotiated in the mid-90s, and those welfare cuts weren’t what either camp explicitly wanted in the framework of its own political ideologies, but they achieved change nonetheless. So in practice, I’d argue that those irreconcilable differences between Democrat and Republican agendas are what make them different, but don’t render effective change impossible — agreement won’t come, but in necessary cases where compromise is forced, useful change happens.  Bipartisanship doesn’t mean rainbows and smiles, it means working together even when change is daunting alongside extremely polarized political convictions.

It isn’t naïve to talk about the possibility of bipartisanship or to acknowledge its necessity as we move into the next decade. In fact, talking about it openly is the only way to change a contaminated system — we can elect and elect, time and time again, but different people will act the same when placed in an intensely polarized Congress like the one we have today. We need the acknowledgement of private citizens and the leadership of the executive branch and the honchos in Congress to provide examples of how to get things done, as we did in the budget crisis. We can demand bipartisan discussion and solutions or we can remain realistic and complacent in an ineffective political system — if we try the former out of youth and relative inexperience, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

In practice, our nation is a republic, but it is built on democratic cornerstones. We legislate through representatives because true democracy is not pragmatically feasible.  If every decision made to govern our country was made by the people, there would not be a clear red and blue division every time. People would switch their allegiances from issue to issue. When I use my young, unjaded eyes to imagine a map of votes across the country, with varied opinions and changing priorities, I see a swatch of purple, people changing their views of each situation as it comes, and not an absolute pattern of red and blue. Permanent polarization through representation shows that our system is fallible, and bipartisanship acts as the correcting factor for that fallibility.

Maggie Henry is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry