There was a time in Washington when politics was the means to an end. The end was governing. The messy process of politics was applied to gain office and then to develop and secure passage of legislation that reflected a public policy consensus.
Politics was the dark side of good governance. Its tools were influence, cajoling, trade-offs, favors, intimidation, patronage and pork that often produced good results when applied to a noble purpose. It was the means to achieve the enactment of the Constitution and laws that have made this a prosperous and compassionate nation.
The process of achieving a sensible compromise is not always pretty. It often involves give-and-take that if exposed to the light of day would reflect badly on participants, who could do things in private that, if revealed, would harm them politically.
With the level of scrutiny the media now apply, such “deals” are more likely to be exposed, and do harm to one or more of those involved.
Ironically, more partisanship and resulting gridlock may be an unintended consequence of the level of attention the media bring to the process. Rather than concerning themselves with “doing the right thing,” politicians are more apt to play to their constituents for fear of revealing their involvement in the confusion and disorder that so often is an integral part of governance.
Strict adherence to ideology is to compromise what virginity is to marriage. You can’t have both. The purists back home have little sympathy for, or understanding of, what governing in a democracy entails. For them, compromise is hypocrisy – a sell-out of inviolable core values. That attitude is more consistent with autocratic rule. Democracy requires the balancing of interests, and reaching compromise is precisely that; it’s not only how we govern, but how we live.
Now that has all changed. Politics has become the end game. Doing whatever it takes to stay in office is paramount. Survival is the goal. In an age of hyper-transparency, the way to do that is to malign and discredit the opposition. Not just the policies and programs being advanced by opponents, but their character, intelligence, credibility, and honesty.
Form now overwhelms substance, the means obstructs the end, and governance is stymied. To even talk to the opposition is now suspect to some. Candidates are elected and sent to Washington not to cooperate but to impede. Cooperation is viewed as a sign of weakness by the ideologues.
Congress is becoming a theater of the absurd – a dysfunctional reality show – where the players’ biggest fear is that they will be cancelled and have to return to a life of obscurity. Egos have crippled the institution upon which we all depend.
There was time when we could look to Congress for profiles in courage. There were some who would risk the unpopular vote – a career-ending act – to serve the common good. There were others, less courageous but still effective, who would make a deal. Either way, the institution functioned.
The purists subscribe to the New Hampshire motto: “Live Free or Die.” There is no middle ground. In softer terms: “It’s my way or the highway.” What they overlook is that freedom can be defined differently. What I consider freedom for myself and others may include health care, immigration reform, and gun control; others feel differently. Freedom is relative but death is absolute.
I propose a motto for Congress: “Live Free and Let’s Talk About It” or “Don’t Tread on the Common Good.” The options should never be so stark and self-centered that reasonable people cannot come to a sensible compromise. “Give Us Liberty and the Wisdom to Understand and Achieve It” might be a good start, but it would require an awful big license plate.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.