What’s a promise worth, any more?
Surely one of the most peculiar phenomena in America’s peculiar politics has been Grover Norquist’s no-tax-increase pledge. It was signed solemnly by countless Republican politicians over the last couple of decades. But it was a scruple disconnected from any real consequence. It’s sort of like a public declaration that you won’t step on a crack so you won’t break grandmother’s back. Norquist’s pledge made no more sense than to declare that you’ll never pay more for a gallon of gas than you do today. It’s a promise likely to be mooted by circumstance.
Such as the fact that there is no way out of the federal fiscal hole without some kind of tax increase. Thus Grover Norquist, until recently the most powerful unelected political figure in the country, is on his way to becoming an anachronism. Republican members of Congress and the Senate are coming up with inelegant excuses for breaking the promise. Like certificates of stock in a bankrupt company, their signed pledges are no longer worth what it costs Norquist to store them in his vault. Soon his anti-tax crusade will be small enough to drag into the bathroom and drown in the tub.
It’s easy to make light of the revealed absurdity of the no-tax-increase pledge. But this occasion invites deeper consideration into the nature of vows of all kinds. Norquist’s pledge was never much more than a ploy for him to control the flow of campaign cash. But more substantial promises are often broken. We live in a society where about half of all marriages end in divorce. Does that mean that the promises made in half of all weddings are meaningless? I’ve officiated at hundreds of wedding ceremonies. I have failed to find any patterns in the behavior of couples, as they get married, that would suggest the ultimate outcomes of their unions. Divorce statistics don’t dampen the intense sincerity which couples express in their vows. When people commit themselves to each other forever, that eternity exists in the moment. Forever is a quality of the here and now. Hopefully, it builds on itself, day by day, to create a future in which the promise stays alive. How many tomorrows will forever last? We don’t know. Things change. Sometimes the promise evaporates more than it breaks. Marriage can die a natural death that may be nobody’s fault. The vows lose their meaning in the new reality, but that doesn’t take away the meaning they had when they were first uttered.
So let us be gentle with the politicians who took Grover Norquist’s pledge. History has erased their signatures. The pledge made no sense in the first place, but that doesn’t matter now. They don’t need forgiveness for doing what they swore they’d never do. They don’t need to make excuses or prevaricate about what they meant when they signed. We can’t expect them to eat crow, because the crow has flown on.
From this moment in history, let us learn to discern carefully before we invest our hearts and minds in promises. Let’s save them for things that matter most, humbly recognizing that the only future we’ll ever know is the one we feel and imagine in the here and now. And let us be graceful in times when promises lose their force and meaning.