Sometimes I wonder if Washington, DC has reached a point where it has lost all its humanity.
This town, where even the most mundane legislation rarely passes because of an indeterminate level of partisanship, seems to be on life support. Just last week, the U.S. House failed to pass a “Farm Bill,” traditionally the most bipartisan, bicameral bill the Hill produces. From Tea Partiers spitting on Democrats walking to vote on “Obamacare” to Pres. Bill Clinton’s impeachment for lying about sex, I’ve wondered if the partisanship of the last few decades was only coming from Republicans. Indeed I was convinced it was a one-sided affair.
Then Edward Snowden showed up via the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald and it hit me like a ton of bricks: oh God, even fellow liberals have enrolled in the “School of Political Destruction.”
Conservatives and progressives have existed in this country since her inception. Indeed, it was the struggle between these groups that formed our current system of balance between state and federal governments. Modern-day liberalism was a reaction to the laissez-fare economic theories which led in large part to the Great Depression. Conservatism, as we knew it, was its mirror to what was largely perceived as over reach by Roosevelt’s liberals and his New Deal plan. And while spirited debate has always been the uniting thread of our political fabric, it wasn’t until Watergate and the subsequent Clinton impeachment that Washington turned sour and vile. These are demarkations, points in our nation’s history, where we can look back and see a sea-change moment.
Sadly, it seems we’re in a death spiral.
I came to Washington, DC in 1992 to work on the Bush-Quayle re-election. I was a closeted, conservative 25-year old gay southerner in desperate need of a fresh start. I believed deep in my heart that President Ronald Reagan had done no wrong, that all Democrats were completely evil, and that the GOP platform (which I had no clue what it consisted of) was God’s word. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, Democrats reigned supreme (for two years), and I came out of the closet with a clear realization that perhaps my father’s conservative indoctrination was inherently flawed. Fast forward to 1997 and I went to work for freshman Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) as an unpaid intern and began the best education of my life in that elite school of the U.S. Senate.
I got great advice from an old school staffer at the time, a quiet man who worked for Senator Robert Byrd (WV) . He told men in his quiet, West Virginia drawl “Sit on the Floor, watch and learn what’s going on, and remember that the key to this place is the art of the deal.” What I picked up early on was you can work for a liberal or a conservative, but in the Senate you must find common ground. So I buckled down, learned everything I could about anything, and then spent a majority of my time working with staffers from both sides of the aisle to pass legislation that was good for our country and my boss’s constituents. That’s Congress’ job after all isn’t it? Poll after poll tells us a majority of the American people want results, not complaints or excuses.
So when did it become so bad, so evil for liberals and conservatives to compromise? When did it become commonplace for conservatives to hate anything liberals proffered up and vice versa? When did it become ok to force 139 filibusters in a single Congress!
That’s why was I so struck by Greenwald’s “breaking” story about Snowden. I’ve long followed Glenn and his work, admiring his tenacity and pure passion for the truth. I went back and read much of his reporting for salon.com. And while I agree with many things Glenn has espoused over the years, what troubles me most now is his extremism against the art of compromise. He wrote on December 14, 2010: “What’s most striking about all of this, as usual, is how the worst and most tyrannical government actions in Washington are equally supported on a fully bipartisan basis.” Those 28 words are simply anathema to everything I learned in the Senate.
Now I want you to take a small test with me.
Take away Greenwald’s voice in the above quote and substitute Senator Ted Cruz (TX) or that of Michelle Malkin or maybe even Rush Limbaugh. Is there any difference? Isn’t his extremism the same as theirs? In the end, both sides know in their hearts they’re always right. Greenwald once said “I think the only means of true political change will come from people working outside of that [two-party electoral] system to undermine it, and subvert it, and weaken it, and destroy it; not try to work within it to change it.” (International Socialist July 7, 2011). Key words here: undermine, subvert, weaken, and destroy.
Last time I checked, those aren’t very liberal-sounding words. In fact, those aren’t actually very American words are they?
I know I’ll catch a basket of hell from lefties out there who think I’m comparing apples and oranges. Democrats think Republicans are evil and vice versa. The problem with that is neither is inherently true. Are there bad Republicans? You can bet your ass there are and frankly there are bad Democrats. But it seems it’s just way too easy to demonize political or religious types, to cookie cut them and put them in labeled boxes like they’re some sort of weekend project for OCD types.
Our political system is in bad shape and it needs more than a tune up. In fact, I’d suggest it needs more than just new tires and a polish. America’s politics needs it’s engine rebuilt.
There isn’t a single silver bullet to fix our current political environment. I’ve advocated in the past that we should ban money in politics and remove cameras from the House and Senate Chambers (sorry C-Span!) and I stand by that. Members too often play to the cameras and then sell their souls at fundraisers while we stand around and scratch our heads at their disfunction. Maybe if we forced politicians from both sides of the aisle to not just work together but to live, eat, sleep, and play together we’d see more results. You know, kind of like, children. Fifty years ago, we had conservatives and liberals and they all lived in Washington, DC with their families and they went to cocktail and dinner parties together. They fought it out during the day and at night, they got to know each other and made deals. And Congress’ approval rating never hit 10% approval.
It’s not lost on me I’ll be attacked for being a “former lobbyist,” for favoring back room deals, for harking for a time past. I have very thick skin and thankfully, the First Amendment is remarkably clear about the role of redressing our government aka lobbying. That’s a diversion though. Attacking the attacker isn’t an answer to the charge. But pointing out what’s wrong with extremist voices on both sides of the political aisle seems rational if not underrated.
The late David Foster Wallace once noted that writing’s first obligation is to address what it is to be a human. It’s that ability to understand your fellow human beings, to understand their point of view that would lead to human solutions for human problems. Applied to Washington, DC, the ability to compromise, of giving and getting, is what’s lost in Washington today.
Sadly, there’s little tactical difference between a Ted Cruz or a Glenn Greenwald. And if we as a society accept and allow this kind of governing, then let’s take Greenwald and Cruz’s advice and destroy our two-party political government. You know, it’s the one we’ve had since 1789 and it’s worked remarkably well…until now.