The US government is (technically) functional again, and the national crisis has been (sort of) averted, for the time being. But whatever our political persuasion, we all know that the recent government shutdown was only the latest episode in an ongoing pattern of melodramatic debt crises ending in hard-fought, down-to-the-wire agreements to kick the can a little further down the road. And now as always, the question of the day remains, “Who is to blame for this mess?”
If this is our starting point for a national self-diagnosis, we are already asking the wrong question. It’s true that the latest kerfuffle was largely driven by an apocalypticism over the implementation of Obamacare that is insanely disproportionate to whatever valid concerns there are about it, and it’s also true that the first and loudest screams of protest at any suggestion of blame to go around on all sides have been coming from an equally reactionary left that suddenly sounded as obstructionist as the GOP as the shutdown approached. But now that I have probably annoyed everybody, I want to take it a step further. It’s easy for Democrats and Republicans – congressional and otherwise – to throw stones back and forth to no end. And it’s easy for me, as a staunch Independent, to smugly cry, “A pox on both your houses!” But ultimately, responsibility for the state we’re in extends beyond congress and the White House.
The problem is not only in the way politics is practiced, but just as much in the way news is presented. Partisan gridlock is being fueled by partisan news outlets – and, by extension, the audiences that feed them and are fed by them. We may justly (or, often, one-sidedly) criticize our elected representatives for their unwillingness to work together, but if we selectively listen to news sources that instill bitter hatred in us toward half of our compatriots (a hatred which, as thoughtful commentaries by Frida Ghitis and Michael Austin point out, has become increasingly personalized), are we really any different?
It is sometimes said that in a democracy we get the government we deserve. As frustrated as we all are with congress by now, they are, sadly, a reflection of ourselves. Elected officials act with specific voter bases in mind. When they act out of ideology, this is often an appeal to, and a result of, an electorate that rewards ideology. Congress is polarized because America is polarized.
And yet, the extent of the frustration may be an ironically hopeful sign that the polarization is near the breaking point. I’m not sure whether a silent middle is finally speaking up or some war-weary ideologues are reaching the point of laying down their swords (perhaps it’s some of both), but public sentiment at last seems to be turning toward fatigue. The toxic political atmosphere we’re breathing has taken its toll on all of us, and more and more of us are saying we’re tired of fighting. Maybe by next year’s midterm elections, enough of us will be ready to stop rewarding ideological gridlock with our votes. And maybe we are already signaling a shift in priorities to those currently in office.
We haven’t seen the last of the nastiness, but hopefully we’ve seen the worst.