Posted by: mutantpoodle | December 30, 2012

It’s about Duty…

Earlier this fall, on a long drive home, I caught an episode of On Being, and a discussion between David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch. Blankenhorn is founder and president of the Institute for American Values, and Rauch is the author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.

So their initial interactions involved a lot of disagreeing.

Their conversation was fascinating, because it was clear that they had, over the years, actually listened to each other, and Blankenhorn, this past summer, reversed his opposition to gay marriage.

There was one section that stuck out for me, later on on the discussion:

Mr. Blankenhorn: You know, we called what we did achieving disagreement.

Ms.Tippett: Yeah, I like that.

Mr. Blankenhorn: See, because it’s easy to have a false disagreement. I can just say, oh, you’re a bad person and you’re stupid. You’re some kind of religious zealot or something. I can just have a belief. But to actually know where we disagree requires effort from you and from me. We have to have a relationship to do that. And part of achieving disagreement means identifying areas of common ground. It means finding out where we agree.

Otherwise, how do you know where you disagree if you don’t also know where you agree? And that, I’ll tell you, in today’s world of hyperpolarization and the sheer idiocy that is our public debate on most days, 98 percent of the time, you know, the heart just cries out for this kind of, you know, serious effort to achieve disagreement.

Mr. Rauch: Could I just say there’s another element of this which was important to me and I think is for me what started pushing me in your direction is when I believe there’s an element of patriotism about this. I believe that there are higher values ultimately than what each of us wants as individuals.

I discovered in you I thought someone who understood that you’re a multivalue person and that as strongly as you felt about marriage, that you felt even more strongly that we have to share the country. And it is our duty as citizens to find ways to live together, and that that’s a higher value still. I equate that with a form of patriotism. When I see someone who won’t compromise, I see someone betraying the core purposes of our Constitution, which is to force compromise. That’s what James Madison was doing.

Mr. Blankenhorn: Right. Exactly.

Mr. Rauch: And I saw in you someone who is willing to say, you know, being right about marriage is not as important to me as making a pact with my fellow Americans on the other side so that we can share this country.

Mr. Blankenhorn: We can live together, yeah.

Mr. Rauch: There’s nothing soft and squishy about that.

Ms.Tippett: Right.

Mr. Blankenhorn: It comes across that way sometimes, but I do think I agree I think it’s a kind of patriotism. And you write — you know, Jon has written for gay audiences, you know, and said things like he said, like it’s time to like give these religious people a bit of a break and not press our advantage. It’s time — I’m not trying to put words in his mouth, but he says this. He says, you know, sometimes a sweeping court decision to impose gay marriage may be not the best way to achieve the goal. I can only imagine the criticism that comes your way, you know, from your own community about that, but I think on our best days we both sometimes try for that a little bit. [Emphasis mine]

The host, Krista Tippet, then mentioned a separate discussion between Alice Rivlin, founding Director of the CBO and Clinton administration official, and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici. Here’s a small piece:

Ms. Tippett: I mean, did you have a kind of working relationship and political relationship that this seemed like an obvious thing for you to start working together on the debt reduction taskforce? Or how did that happen?

Ms. Rivlin: Yes. And you have to remember that when Pete and I first met, I was the director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. He was a freshman senator on the budget committee and I appeared frequently, testifying before the budget committee. And I quickly figured out, this man’s really smart and he really cares about doing it right. So we had a mutual respect that goes back a long way.

Now, we always knew that he was a Republican, I was a Democrat. And later, much later, actually, when I became the budget director in the first Clinton administration and Pete was the chairman of the budget committee in the Republican-dominated Senate, we were on opposite sides. Clearly. And we disagreed on substantive matters, but we never lost our respect for each other. And I think that’s the key to this.

People can disagree on all sorts of things, but if they listen to each other and have respect for each other, they can work things out. And we’ve kind of lost that idea that you have to work things out and compromise and come to a conclusion. Because gridlock, which we have now in the budget, is the worst possible thing, especially with respect to a problem like the budget deficit, which gets worse if you do nothing. Gridlock is fatal for this problem.

Now, I may have issues with Ms. Rivlin (and Paul Krugman would heartily disagree about the danger of our current deficits and debt), but I think she is right that mutual respect is the foundation of successful political compromise, and that compromise is how this country lurches forward.

And therein lies the problem.

I have been thinking, post-election, about the obligations of elected officials. Nationally, at least, they swear an oath to the constitution, so they are not bound by that oath to particular viewpoints; they are not bound to keep us at peace or to keep the hungry fed, or maintain our infrastructure, or make opportunities equally available to all citizens, no matter how much I think they should. And, to be fair, you might get some disagreement on how to achieve those goals from people of good will and different perspectives.

But listening to the over-hyped Fiscal CliffTM coverage made me think back to an actual near-catastrophe: the 2011 debt-ceiling fiasco. This was a time when one could argue that congresscritters unwilling to allow a debt ceiling increase to pass were violating their oaths, if one chooses to read the 14th amendment that way.

Steve Kornacki has a piece in Salon which reframes the Tea Party from a movement to a mindset:

As I wrote back in ’10, the Tea Party essentially gave a name to a phenomenon we’ve seen before in American politics – fierce, over-the-top resentment of and resistance to Democratic presidents by the right. It happened when Bill Clinton was president, it happened when Lyndon Johnson was president, it happened when John F. Kennedy was president. When a Democrat claims the White House, conservatives invariably convince themselves that he is a dangerous radical intent on destroying the country they know and love and mobilize to thwart him.

The twist in the Obama-era is that some of the conservative backlash has been directed inward. This is because the right needed a way to explain how a far-left anti-American ideologue like Obama could have won 53 percent of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes in 2008….

Thus did the Tea Party movement represent a two-front war – one a conventional one against the Democratic president, and the other a new one against any “impure” Republicans. Besides a far-right ideology, the trait shared by most of the Tea Party candidates who have won high-profile primaries these past few years has been distance from what is perceived as the GOP establishment. Whether they identify with the Tea Party or not, conservative leaders, activists and voters have placed a real premium on ideological rigidity and outsider status; there’s no bigger sin than going to Washington and giving ground, even just an inch, to the Democrats.

It’s hard to look around right now and not conclude that the Republican Party is still largely in the grip of this mindset.

I’d argue that the Tea Party has its explanation for Obama’s election and re-election. It’s the gifts he gives to the “takers”. It’s the less-American so-called “citizens” voting for the un-American President (if he really, legally, IS President).

It is, in short, that Obama’s elections are illegitimate.

That’s less important, I think, than how that translates into action.

Back to the Fiscal CliffTM. If a politician believes that it is terrible to raise taxes – ever – that’s certainly his or her right. If they believe that the national debt is a ticking time bomb, and that deficits are unjustifiable, that’s OK, too. (However, it would help if you hadn’t frittered away your credibility on the subject by exploding both the annual deficit and the national debt when you had power.)

But now it is time for governing, and each side has to make a choice between the policy that will happen (Fiscal CliffTM) if nothing is done and some alternative that might come up to mitigate it.

I, for example, might prefer the cliff to a deal that touches social security, although unemployment extension and other stimulus is likely worth some pain I might not otherwise like.

Republicans, on the other hand, might like the non-defense spending cuts element of the cliff but very little else.

And nobody, apparently, wants taxes to go up on people making under $250,000 a year.

I won’t be heartbroken if no deal is made. (That said, I’ll be surprised if one doesn’t come about by mid-January.) And it’s not any representative’s duty to agree to something they don’t like.

It would be nice if they understood that inaction is a choice, and it would be good if people were held accountable for it.  Their choice, after all,  is between the best paths available, not between what they want and what is offered.

Sadly, in the world we live in, where people worry about the President being mean to the same Republicans who question his heritage and patriotism while they put the country’s credit at risk, any sort of accountability is for another lifetime.

Or, as Maha put it:

They’ve somehow simultaneously staked claims on both “love it or leave it” super-nationalism and “hate the Gubmint” anarchism. If you don’t want to either destroy the government or secede, you can’t be a true patriot.

The Tea Party is powerless to stop the United States from transforming itself into the fully diverse, minority-majority nation we are destined to become. Rather than adapt to changing times, they prefer to take their ball and go home. I imagine they would consider Mr. Rauch’s riff on higher values (secular ones, to be sure!) as dangerous collectivism, as opposed to what it really reflects: a desire to maintain a community.

They are, in short, unwilling to share our country: a country, I might add, that they don’t own in the first place. And I think that is why I find the Tea Party – at least as they exist in the governing sphere – so offensive.


  1. Duty is such a good word. Would that people — not just in government — thought about it, and not just about their own good.

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