Amid all the rancor in the media regarding President Obama’s tendencies to hit the links and go on speaking tours, one aspect of his and Congress’ governance does stand out: they go through the motions of governing, without actually doing so. It is akin to a child who, unsure of how to be an adult, displays behaviors adults engage in, but who lacks the cognitive awareness and context of what it means to be an adult. Similarly, we elect our leaders to actually lead, to resolve difficult problems, to rule the people - yet instead, we find ourselves with a bunch of play-actors who do everything leaders are suppose to do, but fail to accomplish anything.
We see a Congress disjoint and divisive, attempting to pass legislation using artificially created deadlines and timeframes, instead of working out their differences and getting bills passed. (Opponents of government might see this as a positive thing, but they may fail to appreciate that a certain modicum of legislation needs to be passed every year. Whether or not to establish a new federal program certainly deserves debate; whether or not we continue to fund preexisting programs is not.)
We see an Executive who bumbles and stumbles from one crisis to another, always promising that progress can be made, yet blaming Congress for inaction. To get what he wants, he retreats to Executive Orders and the promulgation of administrative rules. In essence, he governs through his will alone.
As Rand noted in Atlas Shrugged, one of the consequences of this style of governing is that the people and the politicians both come to see government simply as a club with which one bashes in the heads of one’s opponents. Witness the anger on the part of the Republican party on the subject of Obamacare. Instead of trying to find a viable alternative, they threaten to use the mechanisms of government to simply abolish its various components. Witness the willingness of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to blame Congressional Republicans for the fact the government has been using stop-gap spending measures for a while now, instead of admitting the Senate itself has not passed a budget in years. Blame and shame the other side, the mantra goes, and the people will should believe we are accomplishing something.
Ultimately, that mantra is being proved wrong. People notice the acrimony in Washington, and they are disgusted. A certain amount of healthy and spirited discussion is certainly necessary in a democratic republic such as ours, and we should welcome politicians and political leaders who weigh in on the heavy issues of our time. We should not tolerate petulant name-calling and bashing.
Why do we witness a failure to govern? There are no doubt many causes, but one stands out in particular in my mind - the fractionalization of American society. On almost every issue, we hear it trumpeted in the news there are two sides - ‘‘mine’’ and ‘‘yours’’. Never is the ‘‘our’’ side discussed or acknowledged. Take any topic, be it abortion, the war on drugs, gay rights, the environment, oil, foreign policy, and you will find only two points of view presented. It is as though we are a society of the binary.
Historically, we as a country have tried to strike a balance between homogeneity and diversity. We believed the color of your skin, your political thoughts, or your religion did not matter, provided you agreed to the basic tenants of the American project. We were united in our desire to build a society predicated on individual rights and the rule of law. Ours was not to be a society built on the idea that you and I had to be the same in order to get along.
Such a society is not easy to maintain, particularly in the face of diverse and often conflicting worldviews. In order for it to succeed, every citizen had to be willing to subjugate their own opinions to the maxim ‘‘I do not have the right to tell other people what to do.’’. We as a society have failed in that regard. We now seem to believe that not only do we have the right to make others obey our code of morality, but that it is moral to use government to achieve this end.
As Lincoln noted regarding houses and divisions thereof, the failures we witness in Washington are merely the symptoms of our own failures as private citizens. Until we recognize and address our own flaws, we will keep electing more of the same.