Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Behind the Pantomime, A Genuine Possibility for Change

I skew to the left on most political issues, from your garden variety hot-button issues on down. I believe in a woman's right to choose if her body will carry a pregnancy to term; I believe that guns should be legal but tightly regulated; and I believe that taxes are the bread and butter that keeps my roads paved, food fecal-matter free, and my house from burning down or getting burglarized -- generally, I wholeheartedly support paying them.

Not everyone feels the way I do, and I can accept that. Hell, I can even embrace it -- this is a complex world, and it takes more than one viewpoint to create a rich and varied culture like that of our U.S. of A. What I cannot accept is the level to which our intolerance of opposing viewpoints has risen in recent years. More specifically, I cannot believe that in the pantomime of our soundbite-ready political system, we actually permitted ourselves to come to the very brink of default. Funny money or not, there were real people with real paychecks and our credibility as a nation at risk, and our elected officials could not manage to step down from the grandstand long enough to do what had to be done -- at least not soon enough to save us international embarrassment and a whole lot of freaking out -- and raise the debt limit so our city on a hill could pay the electric company and keep the beacons lit.

Now, you might be thinking, aren't you just saying this because you're commie-liberal teenage girl set loose in the mall of America with her Uncle Sam's credit card and no sense of fiscal responsibility? No, I'm saying this because I'm an American citizen who reads her history - the debt ceiling has been raised SEVENTY FIVE TIMES since 1964 (counting this most recent raise) - and eleven of those times came after 2001. For those of you who are new to the political landscape, there was a Republican in office for seven of those increases, and there has been a Democrat in office for the last four. This is not a partisan issue -- whoever's in office wants to raise it, whoever's out of office doesn't. Yet partisan politics made it into a partisan issue, and this time, for the first time in our history, it became a HUGE issue. The bickering, the infighting on both sides, the Republicans' absolute unwillingness to compromise and the Democrats' absolute inability to hold any ground in the debate was appalling. Yet what other way could it have played out? Would a more aggressive Democratic party achieved anything more desirable than this pretense of a compromise? Was there another approach the Republican party could have taken that still would have represented its constituency?

No matter how the imaginary scenarios prompted by these questions play out, it's obvious that at least to the American public, both parties in Congress made the wrong decision. Congress' approval ratings are record breakingly-low, at 14% in the most recent Gallup poll. Nixon's lowest approval ratings were significantly higher than that, at 26% right before he resigned. The question is, what do we, crazy fickle Americans that we are, want from our Congress?

There are plenty of articles out there analyzing the polls in order to figure that out; I have my own theory. On January 8th, 2011, a Tucson politician was shot by a man who had come to consider her an enemy. Jared Loughner may not have been motivated by politics, but the political response after the shooting was nothing short of incredible. The election of 2010 was a particularly ugly one, filled with violent, hyperbolic rhetoric and divisive actions, designed to get supporters out to the polls in the spirit of desperate competitiveness, so that the other side might not win. And it worked -- the Republican party snatched back many of the seats they had lost in the previous election. But in that victory, as in those before it, the possibility of peaceful coexistence between the parties slipped even further away, as the American population became ever more divided. Yet while Gabrielle Giffords lay in the intensive care unit at the hospital, her Facebook page filled up with well-wishes from all over the country, from people of all stripes and philosophies, and for a while, everyone seemed to take a step back from the rhetoric and remember, this is only politics, after all.

Over the past seven months, the white flags of the Gifford's truce have weathered to a ragged gray, twisting in the hot wind of division politics. To hear the reporter on NPR suggest that "Congress has got a gun to its head" in regards to the final draft of the bill, I could cynically think only that seven months after an attempted assassination must be long enough to begin using gun rhetoric again. And then on August 2nd, the day that everything would go to shit that hadn't gone there already, there was an unexpected resurrection of the feelings of camaraderie exhibited those first weeks after the shooting. Gabrielle Giffords returned to the House of Representatives (fast forward to about 2:35 for a close-up) to cast her vote for the final compromise bill, and the entire room stood up and applauded. The entire room, not just the Democrats or the Republicans, unlike during a State of the Union address. For those few minutes, even if they disagreed with her politics, every representative in that room was clapping for her, welcoming her back, for no other reason than that she is a human being who had, against incredible odds, returned to do her job.

My point is this: despite all the villainization that happens during heated political debates, the personal attacks and playing to the core that happens during election campaigns, at the end of the day every politician up in Washington is capable of stepping back, putting their palms together, and saying 'Namaste' to one another. As Americans, our job is to elect politicians who can represent us faithfully and well, and remember that our "representative owes [us], not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving [us] if he sacrifices it to [our] opinion" (Edmund Burke). Our politicians owe it to us to stop thinking about their ratings and their upcoming reelection bid every time an opportunity to climb on a soapbox arises. Maybe, just maybe, if we empower them to make responsible decisions instead of demanding absolute obedience, the women and men of the United States Congress can carry out the job we sent them there for, and as Gabby Giffords said, "just get it done."

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