If in Tip O’Neil’s day all politics was local, today all is politics. In a profound sense that isn’t only what’s energizing tea party folks in their purported anti-establishment movement but equally what’s enervating the Left, especially the young. With all the noise about upsets in Republican primaries and the heightened often-ugly rhetoric of people like Newt Gingrich, one wonders what’s happened to the minions of enthusiastic Obama supporters who filled those stadiums to capacity and showed up at the Mall on Inauguration Day?
The easy answer is that it’s the economy stupid, the persistent unemployment and the growing sense that even the not so good old days aren’t coming back soon. Some will argue that the President and Democrats under-delivered on their promised healthcare and financial reforms. From a purist standpoint they did, but given the realities of what it takes to get bills through Congress, they actually may have done better than expected. Some will say Obama himself hasn’t been forceful enough, that he should have abandoned any attempt at bi-partisanship early on, should have let the bastards have it with both barrels. Maybe, but I don’t think its in his character and, more importantly, his entire campaign was focused on bringing people together, closing the divide. Did he perhaps fail in sufficiently reinforcing that message with the electorate, in leveraging the Bully Pulpit? Probably.
But for me, the overarching turnoff is that we have become, perhaps to a greater degree than ever before, mired in politics — all politics 24/7. Just look at the state of our media, the domain of shouting-heads where any modicum of dispassionate and objective journalism has been replaced by rank entertainment, headlining political theater. Newspapers are dying but the likes of Politico are thriving. If a story doesn’t have political value it is either ignored or artificially politicized. Look at the Islamic Center in lower Manhatttan that quickly went from what might have been a legitimate discussion to a partisan free-for-all. Indeed the torrid Right/Left debate has become so heated that it’s virtually impossible to have any serious discussion about the systematic problems that, if not addressed, could lead us over a cliff. The unprecedented weather patterns of the summer just ending — we’re experiencing late September temps in the mid 90s here in Chapel Hill — haven’t produced a single moment of doubt among those who dismiss global warming, most likely because they fear being clobbered at the polls for opening their mouths.
For sure, the tea party movement evokes a mix of in some ways naïve and over simplified libertarianism, but their expressed outrage against the political establishment and politics as usual strikes a chord with the broader public. As to the Obama supporters, particularly the young, many flocked to him because he was different, hoped he was not a traditional pol. In fact, he is and he isn’t, a nuanced complexity that is too much for a lot of people who have been weaned on keep it simple, whether the tag line of a commercial or the catchall labels that we apply to people. They are also a fickle group, notorious for being less than dependable one-off voters. Well I voted last time around, worked my butt off, did my piece — on to my life. But to be fair, they seriously engaged with politics in the name of change and have spent most of the time since watching same-old, same-old as if it was all for naught.
So, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if, despite the noise, we’re headed for an extremely low turnout on November 2nd. That’s makes for a very unpredictable outcome and the likelihood that a very small minority might control our destiny for the two years ahead. It is potentially very bad political news for the President and the Democrats, but a low turnout is ultimately bad news for democracy and for us all. But the more serious problem is that there appears no single individual or group of leaders out there who are ready to standup and call a time out. It isn’t only that our unemployment bespeaks systematic and structural problems that no degree of tax cuts or stimulus can quickly fix, but that with the rampant politicization of everything our governance is broken.
It is often said, think Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan or any conflict, that solutions require partners. I for one am not sorry the President spent so much energy, and yes perhaps valuable capital, on seeking bi-partisan — beyond politics — solutions to pressing problems. The problem has been, and continues to be, that he lacks partners in that endeavor and that includes a significant number in his own party. In the short term scoring political points may give the appearance of victory to partisans on both sides. But once again, Lincoln had it just right; A house divided against itself cannot stand. In that, the clock is ticking.