Friday, December 17, 2010

Compromise in the Era of the True Believers

The recent handwringing on the Left and on the Right over the tax deal struck between President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans has provided a nice opportunity for Americans to see that there is in fact little difference between the far Left and the far Right in America - to be sure, they differ with regard to their stance on issues - but when it comes to the their arrogant, self-righteous, intransigence they are cut from the same cloth.

Political scientist E. E. Schattschneider once wrote,
Democracy is based on a profound insight into human nature, the realization that all men are sinful, all are imperfect, all are prejudiced, and none knows that whole truth…. Even when we disagree with other people we like to think that they speak from good motives and while we realize that all men are limited, we do not let ourselves imagine that any man is bad. Democracy is a political system for people who are not sure that they are right.
In other words, the very foundation of the democratic social contract is the understanding that no one philosophy or ideology is to be privileged above others. In contemporary American politics this is simply no longer the case. As political elites, be they Liberal or Conservative, have grown ever more polarized they have lost sight of the reality that "none knows that whole truth" and that at its heart "Democracy is a political system for people who are not sure that they are right."

Instead we live in an age when the Left and the Right have drifted so far apart that neither is able to see any good in the opposition. Last year, William Galston presciently warned,
"polarized partisanship creates a climate in which each party is likely to deny any truth or virtue to the other. But because no party has a monopoly on truth or virtue, this mindset all but rules out legislation that draws from the best ideas of both... partisan polarization tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Democrats feel sure that Republicans will only obstruct their legislative agenda, why allow them to participate in drafting it?"
In the midst of an ever more partisan and bitter era in American politics, and following a devastating electoral defeat for Democrats, President Obama and Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell achieved the impossible - compromise. As the clock ticked down on tax rates enacted under George W. Bush and a Republican Congress many Democrats, still stinging from the midterm elections, demanded that only the tax rates for those earning less than $250,000 per year be extended. Republicans sought to maintain all tax rates at current levels. During his presidential campaign, Obama had promised to allow the upper income tax rates to expire. During the same time that Congress and the White House was discussing the issue of the tax rates, Congress was also considering an extension of federal unemployment benefits - but Republicans in the Senate were blocking the effort.

The deal struck between McConnell and the White House allowed for a temporary two-year extension of the Bush era tax rates, a temporary 2 percentage point reduction in the payroll tax, and a 13 month extension of unemployment benefits. The legislation passed the Senate by an impressive 81-19 margin and after considerable moaning by Democrats it passed the House with a bipartisan majority of 277-148.

Yet this tremendous victory has caused many on the Left to view President Obama as a traitor who betrayed his base. Some have even called for a primary challenge to Obama in 2012. It's enough to give a casual political observer whiplash. During the height of the health care debate the American Left defended Obama against attacks from the Right. Obama critics were derided as racists, radicals, birthers - all seeking to bring down the President. Now Obama has to deal with flak from his Left - his great treasonous crime? Compromise.

In his book "The True Believer" Eric Hoffer wrote
"It is the true believer's ability to "shut his eyes and stop his ears" to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequalled fortitude and constancy. The fanatic cannot, can not be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause.  Though they seem to be at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet. The fanatics of various hues eye each other with suspicion and are ready to fly at each other's throat. But they are neighbors and almost of one family. They hate each other with the hatred of brothers."
Those "true believers" on the Left who now decry President Obama as a traitor to the faith are little more than the dizygotic siblings of those on the Right who angrily dismiss the President as a socialist out to destroy America or who believe McConnell sold out. Left or Right, they are fanatics. Democrats lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives in the November midterm, they lost 6 Senate seats, and over 700 state legislative seats in the worst electoral rout in 70 years. Somehow, many Democrats have convinced themselves that the correct response is to entrench, to defend ever more vigorously progressive policies - seemingly oblivious to the fact that the 2010 losses were driven by the massive defection of Independent voters who felt that Democrats were already pursuing an agenda that was too far left. Meanwhile, conservatives and Tea Party folks in Congress have mistaken the voters repudiation if Obama and the Democrats. The greatest threat to the GOP in 2012 isn't Obama it's the possibility of Tea Party intransigence.

President Obama got the message of the 2010 midterms, the tax deal is evidence of that and probably the first significant mile marker in his road to reelection. Mitch McConnell got the message as well and provided a significant boost to Congressional Republicans. Congressional Democrats seem clueless.

What has been too often lost in the discussion of the tax compromise are the effects that it is having on other legislation. Now that the tax deal is out of the way it is very likely that the Senate will join the House and vote to repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the Senate is likely to ratify the START treaty - it's event possible that the Dream Act will pass the Senate - none of this would have been possible without the compromise on taxes.

The far Left thinks that President Obama sacrificed too much, the far Right suspects the same of Senate Republicans. All I can say is, if the fanatics are angry, it must have been a damn good compromise. It's not the bill I would have preferred, but I welcome the precedent that it may set for future relations between the White House and Congressional Republicans.