Political Zeitgeist In America

Is there any political reality remaining in America? I’ve been trying to make sense of the political zeitgeist following the election of 2010. Two contradictory perspectives came into focus this week.

Vice President Joe Biden summed up the message from the electorate on “Meet the Press.” Voters want elected officials of both parties to work together and compromise, Mr. Biden said.

MICHELLE RHEE. -- Wikimedia Commons public domain photo

Michelle Rhee, an education reformer who used to be chancellor of D.C. public schools, stated a different position in “Newsweek.”

“I don’t think consensus can  be the goal.” said Ms. Rhee. And: “We can’t shy away from conflict.”

That’s the tension in American democracy — longing for peace and compromise on one hand; and an appetite for political conflict on the other. Voters who are comfortable with the status quo yearn for politics without conflict. They see reformers as troublemakers.

Reformers seeking change are impatient with compromise. They’re willing to tolerate a degree of political unpleasantness to achieve a goal. Compromise usually doesn’t bring them closer to the goal. Compromise simply kicks the problem down the road for a year or three.



It’s human nature to seek the easiest path, to avoid pain and sacrifice. So it’s not surprising that a majority wants compromise. That’s what happened this week, when President Obama crafted an agreement with Senate Republicans to extend current tax cuts for the wealthy, and at the same time extend unemployment compensation for the poor.

The tax-cut compromise is the easy path. It avoids pain all around. But it also adds billions to the national debt. The majority of voters got what they wanted, a minimum of conflict. They are pleased to kick difficult decisions about the national debt and economic austerity down the road.

Americans seem to be dangerously addicted to the easy path. European nations are engaged in national debates (often in the streets) over austerity measures to address their debt problems. America is falling behind on debt, just as we are falling behind in economic competitiveness.

Most troubling of all is that America has fallen way behind other advanced countries in education. Michelle Rhee knows about the public schools:

“The truth is that despite a handful of successful reforms, the state of American education is pitiful, and getting worse.”

If we’re not competitive on education, we won’t have a chance to be competitive economically. And the American electorate complacently ignores the education crisis. In fact, state and local governments are preparing to cut deeply into funding for education, in order to balance government budgets.

Ms. Rhee is quite forthright about the political path to improving education in America. And it’s definitely not the easy path.

“Public school reform is the civil-rights issue of our generation. Well, during the civil-rights movement, they didn’t work everything out by sitting down collaboratively and compromising. Conflict was necessary in order to move the agenda forward. There are some fundamental disagreements that exist right now about what kind of progress is possible and what strategies will be most effective. Right now, what we need to do is fight.”

Any questions? Yes, political conflict is necessary for problem-solving and progress. In some other countries, they resolve political differences through violent conflict. In America, we resolve political differences through elections. Settling our conflicts through civil debate, rather than violence, is the great achievement of democracy in America.

We need to start addressing our political conflicts, not avoiding them. The sooner the better.

— John Hayden