The week between Christmas and New Year’s is not, for most of us, spent paying close attention to politics. Yet for those who cared to watch, it was a week of feverish activity in the year that just drew to an end. For at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2012, the United States was poised to go over the “fiscal cliff.” At precisely that moment, two joint measures, previously agreed upon, were due to kick in: a number of different tax rates were scheduled to increase, while a range of automatic spending cuts, shared between the military and domestic spending programs, would simultaneously be enacted. Most observers expected this combination, intended to achieve significant deficit reduction, to have negative economic consequences, perhaps sending the US economy back into recession.
The chattering classes were agog at the drama as the president and Congressional leaders sought to avoid going over the dreaded cliff, only to have one potential deal after another fall through as the clock ticked. First President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner appeared to have a deal worked out, and then they didn’t. Then Speaker Boehner announced plans to pass an alternative “Plan B” out of the House, but when too few Republicans lined up behind the plan, he had to withdraw it. Attention turned to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried, and then failed, to work out a deal. An exasperated McConnell complained on the floor of the Senate, “I need a dance partner.” Finally he found one in Vice President Joe Biden. Ultimately, the two of them worked out an agreement that passed the Senate a few hours before the witching hour, and then passed the House the next day. Disaster averted!
Under the terms of the agreement... but seriously—be honest with me—how much do you really care? Doesn’t this narrative sound all too familiar? Didn’t we go through a similar soap opera not that long ago (in the argument over raising the debt limit in 2011, which produced the spending cuts and tax increases of the fiscal cliff that we have just been trying to avoid)? And, because the recent agreement dealt with taxes but not with spending—the real crux of the problem—we can look forward to more of the same in February, when it will again become necessary to raise the debt ceiling. They wear thin quickly, these rounds of repeated, last-minute, closed-door negotiations, with their grandstanding, brinkmanship, and melodrama, delaying the day of reckoning without solving our problems. Over time the public becomes numbed to them. Pretty soon our politics will look like the quarterly circus of European Union debt bailout talks.
One of the most interesting comments I read about the fiscal-cliff crisis had nothing to do with the economic desirability of its outcome, but focused instead on this soap-opera quality of the whole affair. Michael Auslin, writing on National Review’s online blog “The Corner,” described the debacle as what he called government by “Hail Mary,” suggesting that the effort to resolve a problem of this magnitude through last minute, high-pressure negotiations was comparable to heaving up a long touchdown pass in the hopes of pulling out an improbable win in the game’s final seconds. “[O]ne cannot govern through Hail Marys,” wrote Auslin. “It simply cannot be expected that serious, thoughtful legislation or policy can be created under conditions little short of panic.” You may get lucky once or twice, but you cannot expect to win consistently with this strategy.
More importantly, Auslin continued, repeated efforts to solve our fiscal problems this way affect the manner in which we approach policy solutions in the future. They are “destructive of any common sense of responsible governance” and amount to “the unlearning of government.” Though Auslin did not use these terms, we might borrow from Aristotle’s ethical theory and say that by acting in certain ways, we become habituated to act in similar ways in the future. We become unaccustomed to identifying problems well in advance, before they metastasize and become (almost?) too difficult to solve. We forget—“unlearn”—how to engage in legislative deliberation and compromise. Auslin offered one striking example of what this might mean. The Senate last passed a budget in 2009. Auslin wondered aloud how many new Senators have been elected since then—by my own rough count, it is actually just over a quarter of the body—and pointed out that these new members have “never passed a constitutionally mandated budget; indeed, they may not know how to, since it is not part of their governing experience.” As Aristotle said, we become courageous by doing courageous acts, just by doing just ones—and, we might add, we learn to govern by governing.
This idea has a fine pedigree in American political thought and practice. In slightly different terms, it was at the core of Tocqueville’s praise for American democracy in the 1830s. Tocqueville was impressed by the energy and skill that American citizens brought to the task of governing themselves. They exhibited a degree of competence that was surprising to a French aristocrat and upended his preconceptions about the political ability of ordinary citizens. He attributed their success in large part to the American emphasis on federalism, decentralization, and local government. By offering so many opportunities for people to become involved in government at different levels, the American system provided its citizens with an ongoing political education. As Tocqueville said of New England in particular,
The New Englander is
attached to his township because it is strong and independent; he has an
interest in it because he shares in its management... in the restricted sphere
within his scope, he learns to rule society; he gets to know those formalities
without which freedom can advance only through revolutions, and becoming imbued
with their spirit, develops a taste for order... and in the end accumulates
clear, practical ideas about the nature of his duties and the extent of his
Citizens can thus learn to govern themselves well. Practice makes perfect, or at least better. But what can be learned can also be forgotten.
Joseph Bessette makes a similar point in his fine book on Congress and deliberative democracy, The Mild Voice of Reason (1994). He argues that after witnessing the failures of governance, especially in the states, during the early years of independence under the Articles of Confederation, the Founders carefully sought to structure Congress in such a way that it would be both truly representative—that is, responsive to the popular will—and also sufficiently independent to exercise deliberative judgment. Bessette quotes James Madison, writing in Federalist Forty-Two, describing the goal to be attained: “[T]he mild voice of reason, pleading the cause of an enlightened and permanent interest, is but too often drowned, before public bodies as well as individuals, by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain.”
Watching the fiscal-cliff negotiations, knowing that we have been through this before and will shortly go through it again, it is hard not to wonder whether our institutions are failing us. Are our politicians in danger of “unlearning” how to govern? Can the mild voice of reason still be heard? If many find it hard to hear in the context of these negotiations, another cause may be their secretive character. If the mild voice of reason is speaking, it is doing so quite confidentially, in backroom negotiations between only a couple of people—in the end, between Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden. It would no doubt be preferable if we could tackle a problem as immense and complicated as the budget deficit in a more public forum, with broader debate and wider input. In reality, though, the secrecy is necessary if any deal is to emerge at all under contemporary circumstances (even if that truth is unwelcome in an age for which “transparency” is a favorite buzzword). The intense scrutiny of a twenty-four-hour Internet news cycle—in which any pundit or blogger with access to a leak about some possible concession opposed by loud voices in either party can throw a monkey wrench into efforts to reach an agreement—means that dealmakers need to be shielded from premature public exposure if they are to have any chance of reaching consensus. Yet this very fact contributes further to the “unlearning” of governance. Among those who feel excluded from the very narrow circle of power, it promotes a shrill, showboating style of politics, in an effort to exercise some influence over the talks to which they lack access. Combined with the increasing polarization of American politics, this style makes compromise solutions even less likely (no doubt the goal of at least some who engage in it).
This situation is all the more depressing, not only because our long-term fiscal problems are so serious, but also because their basic shape is so clear. We are burdening our children with far too much debt; and that debt is driven overwhelmingly by the two largest entitlement programs, Social Security (which should not be too difficult to fix) and Medicare (which should). Similarly, there are two ways to approach the debt problem: by seeking higher revenues, through either increased tax rates or the elimination of various deductions, credits, and loopholes; or by cutting spending. The devil, of course, is in the details. But these seem to be issues upon which the mild voice of reason ought to be able to reach reasonable accommodations.
Like many of my fellow citizens, I hold strong opinions on how best to go about tackling the deficit. Nevertheless, it would be helpful if we could lower the temperature of these debates and decrease the intense resistance to compromise that leads inevitably to last-minute, secret negotiations. To that end, it is worth reminding ourselves that morally speaking, neither the revenue-raising nor the cut-spending approach is the “right” one. Voters are free to decide to tax themselves at higher levels in order to provide more government services. And they are equally free to decide they would rather limit government services and reduce spending. Citizens in different Western democracies have made somewhat different choices about these issues, and reasonable people can disagree in good faith about the most desirable solution. My own view is that the only realistic way to resolve our budget problems is by focusing primarily on spending cuts and entitlement reform. But I could not reasonably claim that this is the only morally acceptable solution or that others are obliged to share my views.
Forthrightly recognizing this fact may be one of the most important contributions we can make toward creating a context in which serious debate and reform becomes possible. Christians are often accused of contributing to our politicized political system by moralizing political issues and turning them into matters of right and wrong on which no compromise is possible. Ironically, the opposite should be true. More often than not, the real Christian approach is to “de-moralize” politics. There may be rare issues on which Christianity dictates a particular political position, or at least sharply limits the range of acceptable positions. Abortion is the clearest example of such an issue, and it is no coincidence that the Supreme Court’s refusal, through its Roe v. Wade decision, to let Americans work that issue out through their processes has done as much as anything to polarize political life more generally. By and large, however, there is no one “Christian politics,” no single set of morally correct positions. This ought to free Christians for vigorous debate, but also free them to work creatively with those of different views in order to reach workable and broadly acceptable solutions.
In saying this, I am not making a mealy-mouthed call for “moderation.” To the contrary: a pox upon those who self-identify as moderates. Firm convictions about political matters are all to the good; partisanship is all to the good; vigorous debate is all to the good. There is a type of politician and pundit that prides and preens himself on avoiding “partisan excess” and strives carefully to take positions located exactly between whatever are taken to be the standard Republican and Democratic positions. These people are political publicans praying on street corners. The point is not to abandon our convictions, but to have the humility to recognize that others may reasonably disagree while remaining well within the bounds of morally acceptable policy. As Edmund Burke once said, in his famous speech urging conciliation with the American colonies, “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens, than subtle disputants.”
This attitude alone will not solve our problems. Institutional reforms may also be necessary. Rethinking our use of primary elections, for example, might be a helpful place to begin. But such a “Christian pragmatism,” or perhaps “Christian realism,” would be a welcome contribution to our ongoing economic debates. It would be a step toward making compromise solutions more attainable, solving our serious problems, and restoring a measure of deliberation to our democracy. It could help the mild voice of reason speak more clearly and, in the process, forestall the unlearning of democratic self-governance.
Peter Meilaender is Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.