It’s probably easier to stop a good idea in the American government than anyplace else on earth. It can be killed in a House committee; it can be filibustered in the Senate; it can be voted down in either hall of Congress; it can be vetoed by the President; it can be declared unconstitutional by the courts.
The bright side: It’s just as easy to stop a bad idea.
This is not an accident. It’s a design. The fact that it isn’t easy for anyone to ride into Washington on a white horse and change the country isn’t a problem — it’s our failsafe against authoritarianism. The Founding Fathers wanted America to be led by people who could unite neighbors and bring factions to accord. The American constitutional system is designed to reward people who can work together: who can talk a bill through Congress, work with the president to get his approval, and craft it in such a way as to keep it acceptable to the judicial branch.
That takes empathy and a willingness to compromise. Without them, it’s nearly impossible to get anything done in American politics.
Without them, you get a record like the Tea Party’s — which has certainly hurt the Democrats, but has utterly failed to achieve any of its goals.
The tragedy of this, to me, is just how many goals it could have attained if it had been willing to work with Progressives.
Though they have substantive, meaningful, and legitimate differences in a philosophy of government — and likely could never be anything more than short-term allies — imagine what they could have accomplished if they’d teamed up on a few issues against the centrists and insiders that make up conventional politics. Here are just a few issues:
• Stopping the national security state
No Issue has highlighted the hypocrisy of liberals more than their acceptance of the blatantly unconstitutional “homeland security” apparatus started under President Bush now that a Democrat is in office. They trust their guy to have powers that no president should have, and they have stood by as national security officials have blatantly lied to the American people. It will come back to haunt us all.
On the left, only the progressive wing of the Democratic party has kept its head and insisted the federal government scale back its security efforts to constitutional bounds – while the Tea Party on the right has had the moral fortitude to make the same demands of its own. Independently, neither has enough juice to move the mainstream majority on this issue. But together they could have made it happen. It’s a missed opportunity of historic proportions.
• Punishing Wall Street malefactors — and ending “too big to fail”
Progressives and the Tea Party will never agree on a full economic program — but both believe that Wall Street elites have gamed the system against ordinary Americans, and that they need to be punished. Both believe that if an institution is so big that it can’t be held accountable for its crimes, then it has no place in American life. Separately, neither has been able to move the legal system to properly police white-collar crime. Together, however, they could have made the American financial system far more fair for Americans.
• Closing unfair and unnecessary tax loopholes
Taxation is the great divide for contemporary liberals and conservatives — but the Tea Party has done yeoman’s work eliminating congressional earmarks, and often shares with Progressives a willingness to spear tax loopholes that centrists would never touch. Getting big companies to pay their share wouldn’t satisfy the Tea Party goal of shrinking government, but it would make the tax code more fair — and mean the government would have less pressure to raise taxes on all Americans.
I know all this is a fantasy, I know it’s not going to happen. I know the Tea Party is impossible and Progressives obnoxious. But I think it’s worth pointing out, as we pass through another election, just how much could have been accomplished had we simply been able to agree with each other on the things we agree about.
The fact that we have to cooperate to get things done means that the best neighbors make the best leaders. If we seem stuck, perhaps it’s because we’re forgetting that.
Benjamin Wachs writes for Messenger Post Media, and archives his work at Email him at