Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday October 27th, 2013

By Barrie Dunsmore 

I have not written much on the recent American domestic political crisis – partly because there has been an avalanche of such comment, most of it strident and partisan. But as a foreign correspondent, I was often assigned to offer Americans a detached, outsider’s look at a given country under stress. These were hardly scholarly tomes- more like Cliffs Notes designed to provide a story, contemporary context and historical perspective. That said - some thoughts follow on politics today in America.  

The government shutdown and stalemate over raising the debt ceiling which brought the country to the precipice of an unprecedented government default, are the latest crises to undermine Americans’ faith in government institutions. The most recent polls overwhelmingly show historic lows in public support for the Congress. The Republicans took the worst hits for having been largely responsible for creating these very costly standoffs. But neither the Democrats nor President Barack Obama should be pleased with public perceptions of their work either.  

A common theme in all the negative poll results is the public distaste for partisan squabbles - accompanied by a strong yearning for the good old days when government seemed to work better and bipartisanship was more the rule than the exception. Like all fond recollections of the past, these may not be entirely accurate.  But it’s a fact that over several decades American politics have undergone a major structural shift, which largely accounts for what today is a dysfunctional governing system.   

Thomas Jefferson among other Founding Fathers did not believe in political parties. Nevertheless parties emerged early on and have been a major part of the system since. Republicans and Democrats in various forms have been around since before the Civil War. Throughout the 20th century they were the main players and for much of that time, the differences between the two were not fundamentally ideological. The Democrats had radical leftists. They also had their very conservative Southern Democrats. Republicans had a conservative wing but there were also many moderate, even liberal Republicans, particularly in the North East.

Bipartisanship was the norm in those years when moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans joined together to pass legislation generally seen as being for the good of the country.  

That dramatically changed in the mid-sixties, when with bipartisan support, President Lyndon Johnson was able to push through Congress, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and ’65. Those laws, which guaranteed equal rights to African Americans (a century after the end of the Civil War) infuriated most Southern Democrats, who over the next few years bolted the Democratic party to become Republicans. Southerners came to dominate the Republican party and eventually pushed out most of the North East Republican moderates.  

It was this development that resulted in the current situation in which each party now represents radically different ideologies. Having lost their conservative Southern wing, Democrats became more centrist/liberal while the Republicans became almost entirely conservative. And with the Tea Party, the GOP now has a wing with total disdain for bipartisanship or political compromise. 

To that tectonic shift, add the unprecedented use of the filibuster on virtually all important business of the Senate, which allows 40 of the 100 senators to decide what laws are passed. Then toss in a group of some 50 hardcore Tea Party members of the House, who hold near total sway over what gets voted on or even debated in the House. What emerges is a paralyzed political system in which the minority can thwart the majority at almost every turn.  

That is not the way the American political system was meant to work. To preclude partisan gridlock, compromise and bipartisanship are a must.  And while the Constitution seeks to protect minority rights – minority rule was certainly never intended. 

Frankly, the election of the first African American to the presidency in 2008 has added to political polarization. Since his election President Obama has faced intense hostility and resistance to virtually everything he has tried to do. During his first term, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proudly proclaimed that his number one priority in the Senate was to make sure Obama was a one term president. Thus, policies which had been touted by Republicans in the past, were suddenly unacceptable if Obama proposed them.(Examples: a cap-and- trade market based system to reduce greenhouse gases; immigration reform to provide a path to citizenship for illegals; and most notably, a universal health care law.) 

 Obamacare was actually built on ideas originally proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, supported by prominent Republican leaders such as Bob Dole and of course adopted in Massachusetts by then Governor Mitt Romney. Yet to hear the Tea Party and its supporters tell it, Obamacare is so dreadful that preventing its implementation was worth shutting down the government and defaulting on US government debt with likely disastrous economic consequences. Even many Republicans considered that irrational.  

 During this latest Washington paralysis, comedian Bill Maher mentioned that Republican House leaders had gone to the White House but immediately ran into a problem. The problem, according to Maher was, “The president is still black.”  

There will probably always be racism and the United States is hardly the only country with racial tensions. However slavery was America’s original sin and this country still bears the burden of that history. It doesn’t help when the Supreme Court guts the Voting Rights Act as it did last term - followed almost immediately by the enactment of new voting laws aimed at suppressing the minority vote in Texas and North Carolina. Obviously, racism continues to infect American politics. 

Living and working abroad over three decades, I found the United States widely admired as the very model of democracy and on balance, as a force for good. But if America continues to allow an extremist minority with racist overtones to essentially dictate what its government can do, it cannot forever expect to be seen as either good or democratic.

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