The Incoherence Of The American Polity

A reader writes:

One of the deepest frustrations settling in for me over the last 24 hours has been not only the recriminations towards Obama, but the multiplicity and utter lack of consistency about them. I’m to believe, from reading a fairly representative swath of news coverage, Facebook statuses, etc., that Obama has to 1) stop freaking the middle class out with talk of health care reform 2) come back to the table strongly in support of a public option that cannot pass the senate 3) slow down 4) not let the process take up so much time 5) don’t lose focus on health care  6) listen to his base and act passionately, just like Bush did 7) engage the other side and independents better 7) stop pretending that the GOP will ever negotiate in bad faith 8) make a more earnest effort to negotiate with the GOP in bad faith 9) get something done and 10) stop trying to get so many things done.

While there is so validity to some of these points, what we’re seeing right now is much bigger than a freak-out; it is the absolute rejection of an even a conceptual political center by a combination of off-cycle voters and the fourth estate. I worry that this is the calcification of the culture wars past a point where no political headway can be made, and no compromise can be brooked, without either side claiming treachery by the other; whether it’s the tea bagger base of the GOP and their phantasm of a government takeover of health care, or whether it’s the progressive left base of the party who honestly believe that none of this would have happened if, say, Howard Dean were HHS Secretary (or something like that).

The GOP, of course, has a much easier job: to just say “No” repeatedly while the nihilists on the Left can keep making idiotic claims about “starting over”, with nothing based in practical or even conceptual experience to explain how this would be done. This is infuriating on so many levels because it confirms something that I wasn’t sure Obama could fix, but which compelled me (and still compels me) to give him my unwavering support: it’s that our political culture, at every single level-from the fickle but decisive independent voters, to the reflexively Manichean right and congenitally spineless Congressional Dems- is just so, so, so STUPID.

This is a rough conclusion for me to come to, but hear me out. You’ve been talking for months about the long game and how this is how the process is supposed to play out. We now have a message from a certain segment of Massachusetts voters which, rightly or wrongly, is being viewed as a repudiation of the process, which, remember, is supposed to work this way. Basically, it’s the effect of voters not so much saying, “We don’t want change” but more like a child’s backseat complaint of “Are we there yet?!”.

This is not to say that the Administration did not make a few key mistakes (letting this turn into a debate about cost controls, while it might satisfy a few deficit hawks here and there, doesn’t galvanize your average voter in, say, Foxborough). However, it does point to an insistence by voters for both 1) moderation (which I think we have been provided in not-unseemly amounts from Obama) and 2) immediate results (which moderation makes unattainable). If what voters want is a President that acts like George W. Bush (whose legislative legacy remains a poorly timed tax cut, two wars, two complete wastes of time-No Child Left Behind and the Drug Entitlement-and a barely constitutional intervention into state courts) with the intellectual acuity and prowess of, well, Barack Obama, then, I can’t help but throw my hands up in the air.

Of course, I won’t in the end (some of your Views from Your Recession continue to give me hope that we’re on the right course). But the more I see it, our politics are unserious because our voters are unserious about our politics. We get the leadership that we deserve. (at least we did from 1992 through 2008). Now that we have leadership that may be more than we deserve, I suspect that, for a number of voters out there, it simply can’t compute.