Monday, April 30, 2012
The larger lesson is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, American politics have not become insensitive to the "the people." In many ways, just the opposite is true. Politicians are too responsive to popular will. The real Washington is in the business of pleasing as many people as possible for as long as possible. There are now vast constituencies dependent on the largesse of the federal government. This is the main cause of huge "structural" budget deficits, meaning that they aren't simply a hangover from the Great Recession.
There are many sophisticated theories today about why politics have become so polarized and immobilized. Ideologues have captured both parties, it's said; primary challenges by right- and left-wing zealots doom centrists; cable television and the Internet favor simplistic, highly partisan rhetoric and argument. Political divisions are accentuated; consensus becomes harder. There's something to these theories, but they also subtly misrepresent and excuse our present paralysis.
More promises were made than can be kept without raising taxes, which -- for the most part -- were also subject to bipartisan promises against increases. Almost everyone agrees that massive budget deficits pose a long-term economic threat, though no can be precise about how or when the threat might emerge. A central question about our political system is whether, after 60 years of making more promises to more groups, it can withdraw some promises to minimize the threat.
So far, the answer is "no." Political leaders don't lead. They take the path of least resistance, which has been to do little except to find scapegoats -- "the rich," "special interests," "liberals," "conservatives" -- that arouse their supporters' angriest antagonisms. It helps explain polarization. This is really what Washington does. It's a demoralizing commentary on the state of American democracy.