As someone who leans libertarian in a lot of areas, I’ve been asked if I was happy about the recent government shutdown and gridlock over the debt ceiling. Just so we’re clear, I think it’s unacceptable that our government operates at a sizable deficit when it already owes around 75% of what the entire country produces in a year. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things, and lately the “conservative” contingent in Congress has been doing things all wrong. Some on the right defend the Tea Party’s scorched earth tactics, citing Democrats’ unwillingness to compromise on entitlements and the fact that the Tea Party candidates’ constituents elected them to be tough on government spending and growth. I get that, and I suppose there’s a point at which the situation is so dire that a “win at all costs” approach is our final option. But the problem is that such an approach is almost certainly destined to fail if employed by a shrinking minority of stubborn partisans.
Those who sympathize with the Tea Party ideals of limited government and a balanced budget need to be realistic about the way they engage those who disagree. Our goal should not be short-term victories won only by using hardball tactics and alienating everyone who either disagrees or doesn’t understand our position. While this may slow the bleeding for a year or two, if it comes at the cost of eroding popular support, it will have been a won battle but a lost war.
Which brings me to my main point – thinking of this as a war is a problem. We are not America-lovers fighting America-haters consciously bent on our destruction. This isn’t good and evil. The average Democrat isn’t a closet Totalitarian who won’t stop until the government is in charge of providing everything from health care to pencils. While they may advocate policies that ooch us in that direction, that doesn’t mean they are fully aware of this or wish to see these policies expanded indefinitely. Individual opinion and understanding of economics and policy implications cover a wide spectrum, and adopting an “us vs. them” mentality in politics is only going to push people to extremes which is the opposite of what we should want.
I may be naively optimistic about this, but I believe rational conversation is preferable to entrenched political combat. I’d like to believe Democrats (even those in Washington) are reasonable enough people to be willing to engage in conversation about policies and open-minded enough to consider alternative views. I’d like to believe Republicans are too. The bottom line is this – almost nobody wants anarchy, and almost nobody wants totalitarianism. We all fall somewhere along a continuum between those extremes. The fact that there is tension about where we should land along that line is one of the great things about democracy. But when our arguments and tactics refuse to acknowledge the fact that issues of public policy and economics contain a lot of complexity and uncertainty, and when we fail to recognize the good intentions of those who disagree with us, the result is gridlock and a failure to make any progress at elevating the conversation to one of rational arguments toward the common goal of sustainable public good.
To use a fresh example, consider the conversation around the Affordable Care Act. I think this law is flawed, but my reasons for this aren’t really rooted in it being a “big government” program. If I was convinced that it was the best, most efficient way to improve health care in the US, I’d (perhaps begrudgingly) support it. Rather, my opposition is based on a belief that uninhibited market forces have proven to be our best tool of determining what services should be provided at what price, and that central planning through regulations, subsidies, etc. interferes with this process in a way that is almost always detrimental. I’m opposed to it because it looks like a flawed Band-Aid on top of a health care system that’s fundamentally broken (largely resulting from other government interference with the market, but that’s another topic). But I’m willing to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, what I hear loudest from Republicans and “conservative” pundits doesn’t focus on these points. They don’t provide evidence or clear-headed arguments. They resort to fear tactics of dubious merit and misrepresentations of the law itself (see “death panels”). They create straw men for opponents and the press to easily knock down, and then wonder why the public increasingly disapproves of them.
America needs to wake up, yes. But not to the sound of yelling and fighting. We need to wake up and recognize the worthlessness of what passes for public “debate” and elect people who deeply understand and can eloquently explain their reasoning.