Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Problem of Gridlock

I have wanted to write for some time on the problem of partisanship in American politics. It stands as one of the serious drawbacks to our system of governance. It's part of what makes American democracy, as Churchill said, "the worst form of government, except for all those other forms..."

What bothers me specifically about partisanship is its capacity for exaggeration, distortion, and polarization of the issues we face. It is a wonder we get anything accomplished through this highly contentious and downright dysfunctional process. Nor should it surprise us when the results promised by our elected representatives don't materialize, a.k.a. stimulus packages that don't actually stimulate the economy, education policies that don't improve education outcomes, or trade policies that don't reduce our trade deficit.

For full disclosure, I've never knowingly voted for a democrat, yet I find republican partisanship as distasteful and counter-productive as that coming from the democrats. Both parties are infected with this virus, and it is severely reducing our capacity to solve the serious problems we face as a nation.

When we exaggerate for the sake of political ideology, we often lose sight of the best approaches to solving our deep seated problems. We often turn irrational such as claiming that a limited option for private accounts would "deprive" seniors of the their social security benefits or calling the commission established to control medicare costs a "death panel." We make common sense, pragmatic solutions almost impossible particularly if they require acknowledgement of the merits of the other party's point of view. One gets the impression that for most politicians, politics is far more about winning than about solving problems and improving our society.

In the past, our blatant partisanship was an annoyance, today it is a major impediment. We face serious economic problems, of which the Great Recession was the first symptoms of the potential decline of our presumed prosperity. In the post-world war II era, we have always been able to climb out of recessions because of our dominance in manufacturing, technology, and personal prosperity. We could count on the auto industry or silicon valley or a pent up demand for housing and real estate investment to bring us out of a down turn. This time, economists ask what will be the engine of growth? Green jobs? Not likely, we are realistically not that far ahead of where we were in the late 70's in regard to bio-fuels, solar panels, wind energy, fuel-cell technology, and nuclear. None of these things are in a position to provide the millions of jobs necessary to restore us to the unemployment levels we enjoyed two years ago.

When experts tell us that so many of the jobs lost in this recession are "never coming back," it should cause us some serious concern. Yet, I don't sense that concern from many of our politicians. For them it seems to be political business as usual. How can we be talking about a massive new health care entitlement supported by all the disingenuous rhetoric we have come to expect from partisanship? It is like planning for a week of shuffleboard tournaments while the Titanic is sinking. Actually, our problem is that we are far enough removed from the actual sinking of the ship, that we can continue to live in denial.

What we need, before we get to a crisis far worse than we face today, is a set of truly honest political leaders. The problem is, I don't know how any of them can get elected. It may be that things are getting so bad that we are finally ready for leaders who will tell us what we need to hear rather than what we want to hear. In other words, how can our leaders overcome partisanship unless we do.

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