Politics: Problem or Solution?
Despite polarization, politics is still the way to get things done.
It is all over but the shouting. Beyond the congressional midterms, there were gubernatorial races in 37 states, and 6,115 state legislative races in 46 states this election season. This is a month for resolving close political races and analyzing the rest.
Even as the ink dries on the final tallies, there’s a tendency to use the results as a Rorschach test and impose our perceptions on trends gleaned from voting patterns. Often, perhaps unintentionally, we look for evidence in the numbers to support our preconceptions.
The dominant narratives this political season, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, have been that politics is not the solution to our problems; politics is the problem. By extension, this view holds that compromise is fraught with unacceptable political risk, even if it might come with the makings of a reasonable solution. Our politics are apparently so polarized that they attract candidates who you wouldn’t want to represent you. Further, in a confusion of politicization with politics, if there are too few good actors in public service, then there are even fewer worthwhile (or even appropriate) acts by government. All of this can be explained, so the story line goes, by a collective straying from the ideals of the country’s founding.
Yet politics is still the way things get done and has proven to be amazingly resilient against daunting odds.
Consider the honorable compromise. Lately this political strategy has been denigrated, which is shortsighted because, frankly, we need it to survive. On a recent visit to the seat of government in Northern Ireland, known as Stormont, I saw that lesson in bold relief. My host was Roy Beggs Jr., a sometimes controversial Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Beggs has served in the assembly since it was re-established in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement, which created a process for power sharing between two former enemies.
Standing in front of a painting of the members of the 1998 assembly, including both nationalists and unionists, Beggs explained that “everyone was brought into politics” so that “violence would be a thing of the past.”
“Northern Ireland is a much better place today for all our children, but the compromises and complex nature of Stormont can make political change and improvement difficult,” Beggs recalled. “But slow politics is better than what happened during the Troubles.”
Back home in Washington state, I spent time during the primary season with candidates of both parties running for state and federal offices. They didn’t fit today’s caricature of a politician. In fact, they knew their community, understood its issues and spoke knowledgeably about the interplay of local and national problems.
Moreover, they spoke with conviction about what they believed and how those beliefs had been formed through a lifetime of experience. There was a genuine sense that they all contested the election because they thought their ideas were better for the country than those of their opponents. As an added bonus, none of them seemed shrill or sarcastic enough to be a viable guest on much of what passes for cable news.
We can also be encouraged by the dueling marches on Washington, D.C., in the lead-up to this year’s election. People came from all over the country, sometimes on alternate weekends, to stand with like-minded crowds in support of particular visions of what this country could or should be. Some rallies skewed right, others skewed left and a pair of parody rallies skewered them all.
Interestingly they all gravitated to the National Mall, a place where the nation’s traditions, values and aspirations are carved in stone. The Mall was more than a common backdrop. It reflected what they -- and we -- have in common once everything else has been said. Those common values maintain a platform for politics in its noblest sense -- as both the art of compromise and the art of the possible.