The death of Margaret Thatcher comes at the beginning of a week that will see Obama's budget proposal and possible next steps in the crafting of gun and immigration legislation. Thatcher was known as the figure that transformed British politics and life shifting both to the right in a monumental way. She was dubbed the "iron lady", a term that spoke to her determination but I have always seen as a sexist moniker. Who would describe a determined male Prime Minister as "iron man"? Ladies, don't you know you are supposed to be soft lace not iron. Well, that's a whole other conversation.
Thatcher's legacy is controversial. In her determination to bring the UK into the conservative camp she alienated liberals and virtually destroyed much of the country's labor movement. The prosperity that she sought was claimed to be universal but was in fact lopsided. Her friend, and American counterpart, Ronald Reagan traveled the same path and for many of the same reasons. He achieved what Barry Goldwater could only dream about; somehow transforming what had been largely fringe politics — extremism — into the mainstream. Reagan, as George HW Bush might have put it, was (perceived as) a kind and gentler version of Goldwater.
Thatcher, while unceremoniously ousted by her own party, remains an icon for the British Conservatives and understandably so. Even Tony Blair, whose free market policies were in large measure an extension of her legacy, owes her a considerable debt. The disparity between the rich and everyone else only grew further under New Labour. Reagan of course is the only Republican past president ever mentioned by his own party and his conservative stewardship has the same, if not greater, iconic status on this side of the pond. Thatcher and Reagan were figures with strong (and often unbending) conviction and while their once fringe views became mainstream in one sense, they also were the harbingers for the "my way or the highway" politics that now prevails, most especially in our country.
When it comes to politics and governance, we have choices to make. I think it comes down to two choices: following the advice of the prophet Isaiah or being governed by Isaac Newton's third law of motion. You may remember that Isaiah's counsel (1:18), "Come let us reason together". As noted in an earlier post, Lyndon Johnson's employed it while addressing Congress but most importantly made it the touchstone of how he so successively interacted with legislators on both sides of the aisle. Newton's third law of motion states, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Isaiah seems to have no place in today's politics. In 2013, Newton reigns supreme.
Presidential budgets are always taken as policy statements, goals the White House wants to achieve. Only Congress can craft and pass a budget. So saying that a presidential budget is "dead on arrival" is not that radical. In a literal sense all the budgets that come from the White House might fairly be characterized as such. But in the current environment, the response is not so much DOA as it is, drop dead! Consider the source is the only thing that pertains in this Newtonian environment. Everything is an action that awaits only a certain "opposite reaction". So here we are, another election behind us with a president who did in fact get a substantial mandate (much larger than W's) and the only thing upon which our elected officials can agree is that they disagree — totally. The result is not only a kind of rhetorical ugliness; it is that we find ourselves unable to move forward on anything. And by the way, Paul Ryan's budget was greeted with a similar "drop dead" reaction. Whether these budgets are of equal merit is not the question — I obviously stand more with the President — but that Isaiah has no place at the table.
Thatcher and Reagan played a significant role in bringing us this sorry state. Thatcher was never a consensus builder. In contrast, some might argue that Reagan had the capacity of reasoning together (roll out the Tip O'Neil example), but it was he who popularized the "L word", making liberal a pejorative. Not only has that notion prevailed among conservatives; it has influenced how liberals talk about (and often see) themselves. Republicans proudly self-identify as conservative, Democrats as, well, Democrats. Leaving self-description aside, today you are either on one team or the other and any move toward "reasoning together" is seen as selling out. Obama proposes entitlement reforms of even a modest level at his own peril and Republicans hold the now often Tea Party line in mortal fear of being "primaried".
Altogether the outsized role that primary elections have taken in our politics is troublesome to say the least. Making the most out of gerrymandering, primary elections are often much more determinative than the general. Not only do primaries draw far fewer voters, participants are from a party's hard core. The Tea Party didn't get its power in a series of November contests but in the primaries that select candidates. And primaries are also being used by legislatures for sham expressions of democracy. Here in North Carolina, as I've noted in other posts, a constitutional amendment baring marriage equality was "put before the voters" in a May primary when Democrats had no presidential contest. The result was that 20% of the electorate effectively changed not merely a law but the State's core document. Here, too, as the sides were drawn Newton's law prevailed.
Why does Newton rule? Well there are probably a number of answers to that. Hard economic times and controversial wars tend to push people apart, probably at the very moment when they most need to come together, to reason together. The election of the first African American president can't be discounted nor can the growth of the Latino community — a president who "doesn't look the part" and an awful lot of folks who "don't talk like us". The possibility of a woman reaching the White House, of an "iron lady" sitting in a "man's seat" may extend the Newtonian atmosphere. Let's not even mention that LGBT citizens are being considered "brothers and sisters" not adopters of a lifestyle. It's all too much for many of our fellow citizens to take, a sense of alienation when those who have gotten so used to being in control find themselves losing groudn. Things are not as the used to be, or in the minds of some, what they should be.
It's hard not to despair of where we are, what's become of us in these last years. I truly think the reign of Newton is perhaps our greatest threat, a condition that if continued is bound to have dire consequences. It is already doing great damage. But I am not without hope. The demographic tables are turning, perhaps not quickly enough, but inescapably so. Most significantly, young Americans across all strata of our society have a different view than their elders. They don't see those who look, speak or function differently as "the other", but as an integral part of "us". They lack some of the deep prejudice that has so plagued this country, in some respects from its inception. When their parents or their parents' generation, obsess about things like marriage equality or the loss of WASP dominance, it just doesn't compute. They know, almost instinctively but also out of experience that we're all in the same boat, share similar problems as aspirations. They know Newton's way is getting us nowhere. Perhaps a larger percentage of them have left religion behind and are governed by science not faith. Nonetheless, my guess is that when it comes to moving forward they are more in tune with the prophet Isaiah than the scientist Isaac Newton. Let's hope so.