Man Booker Prize-winner Julian Barnes concluded his novel, The Sense of an Ending, with these words: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” Perhaps, we can borrow the novelist’s last words, remove them from the context of the story of a man coming to terms with the mutable past, and change their meaning with the vagaries of our present time and circumstance.
The United States’ lame-duck Congress has just given President Barack Obama a temporary string (not rope) to pull the government from falling into the much-ballyhooed fiscal cliff. But not after a tense political drama between Democrats and Republicans in both houses, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives finally caved in to the Senate’s compromise of permanently extending the tax cuts to those earning $450,000 and less, and unemployment insurance benefits for one more year. More Republican members of the house majority voted against the compromise but it was the Democrats who followed party lines that ultimately bailed out the Senate resolution from defeat.
Obama apparently has won the tactical battle, for now, against the recalcitrant Republican Congress but may have lost his leverage from winning his re-election on the far more strategic issues of the debt ceiling and reduction of government spending. These two issues will crop up again for congressional wrangling after two months and the future of the U.S. government and the American economy looks even more uncertain than when the fiscal crisis started in 2011, or even much earlier.
This type of crisis management by the Americans is not a model for other democracies to emulate. It is by far the worst example of democracy in action. A democracy is said to derive its strength and character from a diversity of many voices, but members of the U.S. Congress seem to speak with only one voice, which is the voice of the lobby groups and special interests that they represent. Lewis H. Lapham, in an article in Harper’s Magazine, described this voice as that of a “a full-time politician who spends at least 80 percent of his time raising campaign funds and construes his function as that of a freight-forwarding agent redistributing the national income into venues convenient to his owners and friends.” Obviously, Lapham was referring to special interests like Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform, the Koch brothers, the controversial casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, or the powerful lobby group, the American Heritage Foundation – all thanks to Citizens United.
The United States still remains a representative government, but only in the theatrical sense of the word, Lapham lamented. And if we wanted to observe the workings of a democracy, we better be advised according to Lapham to follow the debate in the Czech Parliament or the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies where “the newly enfranchised politicians in Eastern Europe write their own speeches and delight in the passion of words that allows them to seize and shape the course of a new history and a new world.” Sounds like American democracy of old.
What has happened to America?
The American way of governance has disintegrated into a tedious process of bipartisanship or compromise between the two major political parties. No legislation of significant measure can pass in Congress without wheeling and dealing between the Democrats and Republicans. The Affordable Health Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, was able to see the light of day only because both houses of Congress were in the hands of the Democrats at that time. But beginning from the Eisenhower administration in the early fifties, bipartisanship became the rule of the day. Eisenhower only had the first two years of his term under Republican control of Congress, just like Obama and the Democrat-held Congress. Presidents Reagan and Clinton adeptly mastered the way of bipartisanship when control of Congress was split between the two parties during their presidencies.
In his article, “Compromising Positions,” in Harper’s Magazine, Thomas Frank described the Obama presidency as one long quest for a “grand bargain” after another. Obama, he said, is every instinct conciliatory in managing disputes, “not merely a casual seeker of bipartisan consensus; he is an intellectually committed believer in it.”
There is a downside to bipartisanship and Obama has had a dose of his own medicine. When Republicans took over Congress after the midterm elections in 2011, Obama was forced to give in to the Republicans’ demand to renew the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in exchange for almost close to nothing, but for a little leeway in maneuvering the nation’s credit rating. The recent fiscal cliff resolution was not a total victory for Obama because it might have practically eroded his bargaining position when Congress tackles the debt and government spending issues two months from now.
In kneeling before the altar of bipartisanship, Obama appears to stay in the middle of the political spectrum, too far away from the promise of reform and change when he was running for president. He has reached across the aisle much too often and adopted many of the positions of the other party, to the consternation and disbelief of liberal democrats.
Frank wrote: “What Barack Obama has saved is a bankrupt elite that by all rights should have met its end back in 2009. He came to the White House amid circumstances similar to those of 1933, but proceeded to rule like Herbert Hoover. Today the banks are as big as ever, and he has done precious little about it. The regulatory system is falling apart, and he is too ideologically demure to tell us why. Organized labor is crumbling, and he has done almost nothing to help it recover. Meanwhile, the people who told us that finance was king, that the “new economy” changed all the rules, that we didn’t really need a strong supervisory state—those people are still riding high, still making their pronouncements from the heights of the op-ed page and the executive branch.”
Why Americans put almost biblical faith in compromise or bipartisanship is befuddling, to say the least. Most Americans have been conditioned for many years to follow the political viewpoint of either a Republican or Democrat, a conservative or moderate. The reality, however, is that most of the problems confronting the government are technical or administrative, not issues that require more sophisticated judgments that reflect the political passions that have stirred the country so often in the past like civil rights, equality or women’s suffrage. The imagined fiscal cliff, for instance, is not a deeply-rooted ideological issue between competing Democrats and Republicans, but simply an administrative problem the government needs to resolve with regards to its credit limits to put the house in order. Both parties seem to peddle what Lapham called the “comforts of the authoritative lie,” that the promise of American democracy is no longer capable of inspiring citizens to bring about ground-breaking changes. Argument which has been assumed as normal and necessary for the continued existence of the American democratic process has been muted. In its place, politicians have chosen to march on the yellow brick road to consensus, as if conflict doesn’t really exist or matter anymore.
Under Obama’s presidency, the American government has avoided being partisan when democratic politics is about nothing else except being partisan. Arguments are sidestepped. According to Lapham, these arguments constitute the very stuff and marrow of democracy which nonpartisanhip or bipartisanship aims to annul.
By and large, what bipartisanship has effectively achieved is the postponement of what is inescapable, the obliteration of the American democratic experiment. Because at the heart of every compromise is the unwillingness of all parties to admit their responsibility in creating the conflict in the first place, and to accept their equal blameworthiness for the damage they have caused their constitutents. Every compromise is at best a half-hearted approach to resolve the conflict, not the fullest answer like the “grand bargain” that politicians are wistfully dreaming of.
The most recent drama in the U.S. Congress doesn’t augur well for American democracy. It’s not the fitting conclusion that everybody is hoping for. Not the sense of an ending every American would like to happen now.