12 July 2011

Style vs. Substance

I've been sensing a disturbing trend in American politics today, one that I am not the first to notice or discuss. That trend is the rapid disappearance of bipartisanship, cooperation and rationality in our political system. I know, I've said this before. And I'm aware that the same slimy tactics being used today- smear campaigns, harsh rhetoric, stubborn grandstanding, claims of illegitimacy- have been used for centuries. But they seem, at least in the modern era, to have become so much the norm that they have replaced common sense and now threaten the long-term stability of our country.

Maybe it's our 24-hour news cycle that requires every story be a huge one or the economic mess bringing all the freaks out. Maybe it's a changing political climate that rewards sound bites and craziness or conservative fervor colliding with a left-leaning president. No matter how you slice it, the American political environment has seen better days.

The fact that a routine increase in our nation's debt ceiling has become a controversial, explosive issue with undertones of global economic collapse should be evidence enough that things aren't working right in Washington. This is a motion that usually carries with little debate, and literally could not be further from the top of the list of America's immediate priorities. Opposing it vehemently, or requring it be tied to spending cuts, is dangerous and nothing more than a symbolic gesture to voters who don't follow the boring minutia of Washington business- which, up until this year, included raising the debt ceiling. But that's what it takes to make it in American politics these days. All style and no substance.

For all their dysfunction and communicative maladies, Democrats are coming off as much more reasonable and willing to compromise than Republicans these days. (Remember- it was only AFTER Republicans refused any and all tax increases that Democrats began to get stubborn with Medicare and Social Security.) Democrats "caved" on extending the Bush tax cuts, the 2012 budget and now it looks like the debt ceiling. But they don't really have a choice when dealing with hostage-takers.

I have to agree with President Obama- right now the only thing holding back any sort of agreement on raising the debt ceiling, let alone a medium-to-long-term budget deal, is obstructionist Republican posturing.

I guess that's what happens when over 200 members of your incoming congressional delegation ink short-sighted pledges opposing tax increases of ANY kind. (Can't wait to see what this country looks like after ten years of nothing but spending cuts!!) Or when your House Speaker and Majority Leader are basically the heads of two waring factions of your party, one having to constantly appease the other. Or when the stated goal of your party during one of the worst economic collapses in American history isn't creating jobs or stimulating growth but ensuring the defeat of the current president next year by any means necessary. This is not the kind of environment in which nation-saving decisions should or will be made.

There has always been fierce rhetoric in American politics and I suspect there always will be. But there must be reason behind the rhetoric, substance behind the style. Today's Washington is the most partisan and divided in recent memory (albeit mine is not very long), and although both sides fan the flames, one side clearly seems to actively support and benefit from the current climate more than the other. This new crop of Republicans does not view politics as a series of negotiations on behalf of the diverse interests of the American people for the good of the country. They see it as a battle, a struggle between good and evil in which lines must be drawn, principle always comes before prudence and compromise is a sign of weakness. Just what we need.

It's not yet clear whether this obstructionist effort is a party-wide calculation to set the stage for 2012 or the work of purist Republican elements beyond the control of party leadership. But one thing is clear- the current environment must not become the status quo of American politics. We already spend far too much time focusing on trivial issues (see: The Current State Of American Media.) Our elected officials should know better. Unfortunately, until common sense returns to Washington and party leadership finds a way to keep its fringes from driving the conversation, it looks like we're in for the long haul.

01 July 2011

Ramblings On The Middle East

Told you. I am deeply conflicted about what is currently happening in the Middle East. From Tunisia to across the region and (hopefully) Libya, authoritarian regimes are dropping like flies under the weight of an irrepressible public rage decades in the making. But what is taking their place? In some countries, like Tunisia, it appears as if democracy might actually take hold. But in others, the future is not so clear. Egypt has been rife with continued demonstrations, attacks on women and Coptic Christians and police-on-civilian violence ever since President Mubarak stepped down in February. If elections ever do take place, something tells me the Egyptian military isn't going to happily hand over power to the country's new crop of elected leaders. I hope I'm wrong.

I am certainly overjoyed to see people across the world standing up for their basic rights and freedoms. To be reminded that the arc of history truly does bend toward justice, as Martin Luther King said. But the efforts to gain these rights and freedoms will be wasted if they fail to extend to each and every member of these newborn nations. To replace a dictatorship with a government that does not view all citizens as equals in the eyes of the law, or one that is based on an explicit reading of religious text, or one that allows military control of civilian or political matters, is not true freedom. The people of Egypt and other nations throwing off the shackles of oppression must be ready to accept the good, bad and ugly parts of democracy as the foundation of their new country or its construction is destined to be a shaky one.

It is impossible to think about the implications of the change sweeping across the Middle East without discussing Israel. I understand Israel's hesitation to welcome these movements in Arab countries with open arms, but they should be open to communication and not resort to isolation. To assume that each new government that arises will be hostile to Israel is presumptive, but then again so is assuming they will all be friendly. All that is certain is that times and relationships are changing. Israel must exercise patience and practicality going forward in order to ensure its safety and prosperity. Needless to say, going to Washington, snubbing the President and blasting his plan for reconciliation in front of Congress is not a good start.

I support the state of Israel and the Jewish people's right to live on their historical, ancestral homeland. But I also support the Palestinians' right to live on their historical, ancestral homeland. And in the cases where these two overlap, a realistic, reasonable 21st century compromise must be brokered. Both sides have their flaws- Israel is stubbornly holding on to and building on land it seized when attacked over 40 years ago, while Palestinian leaders actively support a globally recognized terrorist organization. But at the end of the day, I refuse to believe the people of either nation want anything other than lasting peace. Grudges may be harbored, but they should not be impediments to peace. Israel must understand that sometimes concessions are a sign of strength. Palestinians must join together in renouncing terrorism in order to earn full respect as a nation-state. Coexistence is most definitely possible, but not until both sides recognize it is in their mutual self-interest.