The Election and the Future
Politicians won’t change until they’re forced to. Only a more demanding electorate and more responsible elites can compel them.
This starts with the media. The new media environment created by the demise of traditional business models and the proliferation of journalistic outlets with strategies designed to attract niche audiences has intensified a focus on sensationalism and extremism and reinforced the tribal divisions between the parties. But the failure to educate the citizenry extends to traditional news organizations as well, where enormously talented individuals report, write, and broadcast under strong codes of professional conduct. The intense partisan environment, with media-watchdog groups on the left and right, has made editors and producers gun-shy when confronting a story such as asymmetric polarization. How do you help readers, listeners, and viewers recognize and understand this important and consequential development without appearing to have a partisan bias? Not easily, if at all. That’s why the radicalization of the Republican Party has garnered so little attention from traditional news organizations. The temptation (or directive) to seek professional safety by imposing balance—through the unfiltered presentation of opposing views or the requirement to say both sides are to blame for problems—often takes priority over capturing the real story: Who’s telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risk and to what ends? We don’t pretend it is easy to change this state of affairs. The risk is that the aggressive reporting and writing that we need can reflect opinions as well as facts. And opinion journalism is certainly not in short supply. But serious journalists have been wrestling with this risk for many years. They and their supervisors must acknowledge that an artificially balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to the public.
But the media are not the only actors who need to step up to the plate. The business community was almost wholly absent when critical decisions were being made that shaped its own future and the economy, in particular during the debt limit debacle in 2011. We talked to many members of Congress over the course of the painful fandango that led to the first downgrade of the United States’ credit rating in history; not one said that a prominent CEO or other captain of industry visited them specifically to warn against playing games with the debt limit or holding it hostage for political gain. At most, when a business leader saw a lawmaker for another purpose, the issue would be raised briefly as an aside. The absence of responsible public leadership by prominent members of the business community contrasts sharply with that during previous eras of economic peril.
The same phenomenon has played out in the contemporary debate over the looming “fiscal cliff.” We face the possibility of another serious blow to a weak economy at the end of the year without resolving a set of issues that include expiring tax cuts, damaging budget cuts (called “sequesters”), a possible government shutdown, and another debt-limit breach. Yet again, the business community has been AWOL, leaving obstruction and hostage-taking as acceptable norms.
We know that if powerful opinion leaders speak honestly and bluntly, political leaders will respond. Consider Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s comment as the debt-limit deadline drew near:
I refuse to help Barack Obama get re-elected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy…. If we go into default, he will say that Republicans are making the economy worse and try to convince the public—maybe with some merit, if people stop getting their Social Security checks and military families start getting letters saying service people overseas don’t get paid. It’s an argument he could have a good chance of winning, and all of the sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy. That is very bad positioning going into an election.
McConnell made it clear that if a breach in the debt limit brought economic turmoil, and it would be blamed on his party and thereby damage the Republican brand, it was time to compromise and find a solution. The clear implication of his comments: In the absence of such political consequences…let it rip.
Another key group of opinion leaders who need to intervene is problem-solving conservatives in and out of politics—specifically, to put a dagger into the heart of Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge. This holy grail of the contemporary Republican Party—based on a deeply flawed and empirically discredited “starve the beast” strategy—has done more to erode the GOP’s commitment to fiscal probity and remove it from playing any constructive role in putting the country’s finances in order than any other single factor. Several prominent conservative Republicans have recently put their toes in the water—Senator Tom Coburn and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are two prominent examples. We were also encouraged by the comment made to Parade magazine by former President George H.W. Bush: “The rigidity of those pledges is something I don’t like. The circumstances change and you can’t be wedded to some formula by Grover Norquist. It’s—who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?” More should be encouraged to challenge the pledge by enlightened leaders in the business, nonprofit, and public sectors.
For their part, President Obama and the Democrats have been much too timid in confronting the whole idea of a tax pledge by aspiring and elected leaders. And bipartisan and nonpartisan groups have made little progress by avoiding such a confrontation to preserve a fiction of equivalence between the parties. The most critical step in reducing our political dysfunction is bringing the Republican Party back into the mainstream of American politics. The best way to kick-start that journey is killing the tax pledge.
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