As the political and media hacks of the alleged two-party system use every means at their disposal to exaggerate the terrifying prospect of a government shutdown, Americans who are the target of this psychological warfare should focus on the fact that the supposedly titanic battle between the Democrats and the Republicans is much ado about almost nothing. Against the backdrop of the real enormity of the public sector’s spending addiction, the theatrical pretense of cost cutting from either party reveals itself to be a pathetic charade. As the shutdown looms, the leaders of the GOP (the party that poses as the champion of fiscal discipline and responsibility) dutifully invoke the prospects of electoral disaster and the governing imperative of compromise. They do so in an effort to quell members of their own party’s congressional delegation who firmly insist on being true to the promises they made to their constituents.
This makes all the ponderous blather about compromise strikingly duplicitous. In its root significance, the word compromise refers to the mutual promises two parties make in order to come to an agreement that resolves their differences. A compromise is therefore worth no more than the promises it’s made of. A compromise between two parties with a proven incapacity to keep their word is inherently worthless.
John Boehner chides the GOP congressional representatives with enough integrity to insist on being true to the promises made to their constituents. But if politicians renege on the promises made to their constituents at election time, why should anyone trust them to be true to the promises they make during the legislative process? This is especially true given Congress’ track record over the last several decades. During that time, compromise has been the byword of the congressional budget process (with one brief and notoriously propagandized exception in 1996.) The compromises always involved commitments that would supposedly end the upward spiral of spending and debt in (___) years (fill in the blank). But it’s self-evident that the United States would not face the impending prospect of bankruptcy and economic collapse if a) the compromises were more than political theatre that neglected to address the real problems (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, pension fund guarantees, etc.), and b) the parties had kept even the (inadequate) promises made in those compromises.
When promises can’t be trusted, compromises can’t be trusted either. A trustworthy politics of compromise will therefore not be possible in Washington until we have an operative congressional majority composed of representatives who have proven their capacity to be true to their promises, despite every maneuver used to intimidate them. But will the forces that dominate the present party system ever permit the election of such a majority? And were it to be elected, would they tolerate legislative results true to the mandate of the people?
The problem is not just the parties. It’s the corrupting effect of the present party system. Its maneuvers resemble those of an alcoholic, who makes a big show of giving up his morning eye-opener, and then slyly slips in a couple of additional nightcaps. There is little chance of recovery until and unless he reforms the characteristic that leads to his drinking. Where our current political leaders are concerned, this translates into the insight that their problem is not just the number of their failed promises, but the way of understanding and doing politics that makes such failures inevitable.
Of course, though drinking may adversely affect every aspect of an alcoholic’s life, his life doesn’t really depend on it. By contrast, the politicians who have built their success and power through cynical, New Deal style “coalition” politics depend upon the authority and resources of government for their political existence. Moreover, their way of doing politics has affected the nature and composition of government institutions. From being instruments and resources in service to the common good, government has become a patronage farm, whose produce serves primarily to feed and sustain the corps of self-serving interests that constitute the power base for factional politics.
In the Federalist No. 10, Madison famously defines a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” By requiring that politicians systematically abuse the resources of government as patronage for the construction and maintenance of their empires of ambition, the New Deal paradigm makes all politics factional politics. It produces parties that exactly correspond to George Washington’s forebodings in his Farewell Address to the nation:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Economic disaster looms; a radical ideologue steeped in the doctrines of Marxist dictatorship occupies the White House; and foreign powers, including the forces of a violently terroristic, domineering religious faction, endanger the sovereignty and physical security of the American people. Considering the likely effects of the national bankruptcy the current political parties seem stubbornly determined to precipitate, have we come to the era when Washington’s words will prove tragically prophetic?