Will Rogers once said, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” I wonder, given that the job approval rating for Congress is down to ten percent, an all time low, if the humorist would be quite that glib were he around today.
Is the political system in the United States more fractured and full of vitriol and nastiness than ever before? Sometimes it might appear that way, although, when I reflect back on the Vietnam era, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the Clinton impeachment debacle, I’m not so sure. How about in the years leading up to the Civil War? That had to be pretty damn divisive.
And yet it seems to me that our nation’s government is choked by political gridlock and dysfunction to a greater extent than I can personally recall. Of course, I wasn’t around in the pre-civil war years.
Our country is almost hopelessly divided along ideological, cultural, and regional lines, and Congress appears to have lost the ability to conduct even the most basic business of government. How can our intractably partisan Congress be expected to address the issues that divide us, much less solve the challenging and divisive problems facing our country?
No one political party or ideology has a monopoly on good ideas. Throughout our history, critical thinkers from both the left and the right have come up with great ideas. The willingness to achieve a politically acceptable compromise on those great ideas has been the hallmark of our democracy. The ability to reach consensus has enabled progress and allowed many of the best laws and policies to be enacted.
Yet the clash of extreme ideologies these days...whether with respect to health care reform, tax reform, fiscal reform, social policies, or energy policies...has resulted in leaders who think that they alone have all the answers and who denigrate those who think differently.
Our elected officials are acting like a bunch of spoiled kids having temper tantrums. It’s as if they’re putting their hands over their ears and making sound blocking noises so that they can’t hear and don’t have to take into account other points of view.
It is with this as a backdrop that I was fascinated by a recent column from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. He wrote a about a trip he took to Australia and New Zealand. Friedman said he was somewhat surprised by the political climate “Down Under” as compared to that in the U.S.
For example, while the liberals and conservatives on the other side of the globe may have different philosophies about the best way to deal with climate change, there is “no serious debate” about the science behind it or that it actually exists. Even the conservatives over there don’t embrace the “climate-change-science-is-bunk” position, as do most Republicans in this country.
Friedman pointed out that “conservatives in Australia and New Zealand have also long accepted single-payer national health care systems.” Even when the conservative party in New Zealand came to power recently, Friedman noted, it did not try to repeal social legislation that was passed by the liberal government that preceded it.
Over here, though, our conservative politicians are falling all over themselves to see who can shout the loudest about how they plan to repeal “Obamacare” after the November election. Of course, this assumes the Supreme Court won’t already have declared the Health Care Reform law to be unconstitutional by then.
Friedman lamented that politics in the U.S. has become so polarized that we have “lost our ability to do big, hard things together. Yet everything we have to do,” he added, “is big and can only be done together.”
Is it any wonder, with the partisan gridlock and political bickering that is making a mockery of the Congress of the United States, that it has only a ten percent approval rating? Maybe the next time Thomas Friedman takes a trip to the Down Under, he should ask some of our elected representatives to join him.