When a Tug-of-War Yields a Logjam

Sometimes, on the news, we see polling that gives an indication of how many Americans think the country is on the right track or on the wrong track . . . According to one polling group, Rasmussen Reports, that wrong-track number has been over 50% for more than two years, since March 2017. Right now, the website RealClearPolitics has the bad number at 56.4%, while the well-known pollster Gallup has 65% of respondents saying that they’re “dissatisfied” with what’s happening in the country.

And about this, I agree with the majority of Americans. I, too, believe that our country is on the wrong track. I, too, am dissatisfied. But not for the reasons that one might assume. I’m not stewing about the Mueller Report or the possibility of an impeachment, nor am I disgruntled over who got blocked from Facebook and Instagram. The tug-of-war has really become uninteresting to me, because the Alex Joneses of the world come and go. I know what my values are – neither political party fully represents them – and those values are more important to me than personalities or caucuses or news cycles or trolls or clicks or followers.

I believe that our country is on the wrong track not because of who is in office or what party they’re from, but because American voters seem to support the entrenchment that contributes to a political log-jam. Our political system was designed for compromise, and the way it works best, each side has to concede some things to get some things. We can’t move forward on climate change when one side says that we have to combat it, and the other side says that it doesn’t exist. We can’t craft workable immigration policy when we can’t agree about whether we’re talking about human beings who fear for their lives or monsters who’ve come to ruin our country. Meanwhile, both sides have claimed to be working in the interest of the common man, as wages stagnated and income inequality got worse. Yet, too few nationally prominent voices are trying to remind us that division won’t solve this, while media darlings like AOC get attention for proclaiming that moderates are “meh.”

On a brighter note than that one-syllable snub, in an April column titled “Politics Isn’t A Sport,” the Washington Post‘s Michael Gerson made this viable argument:

At one level, a politics based on team loyalty ceases to serve political purposes. It may be entertaining — to those who find democratic decline a hoot — but it makes the building of working coalitions to confront specific problems more difficult. Anyone who wishes to cooperate with elements on the other side on, say, education reform, or health-care reform, or entitlement reform is viewed as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. If the main standard in politics is the victory or loss of the tribe, then the task of passing laws to make conditions better becomes secondary and suspect.

I know that America is fascinated these days with disruption and newness, with installing people with no political experience into elected office, but some of the newbies are carrying a stolid platform and an iron will into a place where process, relationships, and compromise all matter.

However, there’s a root to this problem in our culture that’s less often acknowledged. Today, the unceasing flow-of-imagery has inflated the value of success. Though it is good to set a goal, work for it, and achieve it, this other version of success is only about getting what we want by surmounting obstacles, navigating loopholes, emerging triumphant, and not simply defeating opponents but standing alone among a field full of fallen competitors. This is success as defined by Nike and Gatorade commercials, by test scores and US News & World Reports rankings, by Best in Class and Best in Show awards— and who wouldn’t want to to be best? But when that version of success makes its way into politics, there can only be winners whose will is enacted and losers whose will is subjugated. It is faith in that version of success that leads to gerrymandering, stonewalling, and “alternative facts.”

In a recent column, another of those few voices, David Brooks, outlines and describes his own take on this quasi-ethical phenomenon in “Five Lies Our Culture Tells Us.” They are:

  1. Career success is fulfilling.
  2. I can make myself happy.
  3. Life is an individual journey.
  4. You have to find your own truth.
  5. Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

He’s right that these notions are prevalent in our culture. Numbers one and two, when translated into politics, mean: the world will be perfect when my side “succeeds” and our opinions become laws. Numbers three and four imply point to the notion that, if it satisfies my perspective, then it must be good and right. Finally, number five is a gross distortion of that Lockean principle: if private property is good, then a lot of private property must be great!

All five of Brook’s “lies” center on the individual over the collective, on personal goals over societal good, on a kind of success that garners as much as possible to one’s self, which leads to extreme partisanship when applied to politics. Within this kind of thinking, any victory for the other side can’t be tolerated, and any flaws in one’s own side must be denied, subverted, and framed as lies and fabrications; ergo, my side is based on my truth, which makes me happy, and therefore we should be successful and fulfilled, and they should not.

This is no way to envision a democracy, especially one that unites so many diverse people, and that’s why I’m in the majority who believe that we’re on the wrong path. Our current divisive politics does not allow for the depth and breadth of who we are. Though Americans can be opinionated, argumentative, and hostile, we can also be giving, caring, virtuous, understanding, charitable, selfless, and kind— and that’s what I’d like to see reflected in our politics.

Moreover, we’ve got some pretty significant challenges to face these days. During a recent Meet the Press panel discussion, columnist Peggy Noonan remarked that, when the prime players get done bickering over their personal squabbles, they’ve got a country to run. After all, that’s the purpose of gaining elected office: to participate in crafting policy solutions to societal quandaries, not to achieve personal success by getting on the right team and defeating people whose ideas contradict one’s own. That’s why they call government jobs and elected offices “public service,” an ideal that, if emphasized, would put us back on the right track.


*Shortly after this post was published, NPR Education ran an article that goes to the points made here about “success.” It begins, “Most kids value success and achievement more than caring for others, according to Harvard’s Making Caring Common project. Who is to blame? We are.” To read the article, click here.

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