Attending a party on the Fourth of July, I spent some time listening on the edge of conversations, much of which were about politics.
“I don’t understand,” one fellow says, “how the government can send Martha Stewart to prison for insider trading when all those folks on Capitol Hill, who never had a pot to piss in, are all millionaires from inside information.”
“Doesn’t make any difference,” an older gentleman adds, “they’ve been stealing from Social Security for decades.”
All the political talk centered on two points: what Congress hasnot done; or the damage it has already done.
I wanted to mention that the recently passed Stock Act has changed the rules of insider trading for Congress and their staff, however, I was more interested in listening to what this handful of guys were thinking and it was, frankly, depressing.
But who could blame them!
The majority of news from political leaders out of Washington or the campaign trail has been focused on scandal, lack of leadership, and/or a hopelessly partisan Congress. Rather than working on any of a number of meaningful issues, the current Republican-majority House is insistent on voting on yet another repeal effort on the Affordable Care Act.
An earlier member of the Senate reportedly told colleagues that “The confidence of the people is departing from us owing to our unreasonable delays.”
“Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before. For our everyday life is becoming so saturated with the tremendous power of mass communications that any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests… Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment.”
That was written by Senator John F. Kennedy in his 1955 bookProfiles in Courage pointing out much of the same kind of partisanship in his own time in the Senate as well as reflecting on that faced by President John Quincy Adams (# 6 to his friends) who, while successfully paying off a substantial part of the national debt, was continually obstructed by a Congress determined to undermine him at every turn.
Unemployment, an impossible debt, continuing debate on the specifics to Health Care – these are just a few of the major issues facing the current Congress, and yet, where is that member with the requisite courage to stand up and take bold action to forge alliances and compromise?
In his book, The Public Philosophy, political commentator Walter Lippmann wrote, “With exceptions so rare they are regarded as miracles of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular – not whether it will work and prove itself, but whether the active-talking constituents like it immediately.”
While it seems a little harsh in the reading, Lippmann’s assessment most likely contained a great deal of truth.
Today’s politicians – particularly those in the House majority – are the new intimidators, skilled enough to hold the House Speaker in his place and quash anything that smells of compromise in order to hold to a political agenda or face a torrent of negative campaigning from a special interest group.
“The essence of statesmanship, vice-president Hubert Humphrey said, “is not a rigid adherence to the past, but a prudent and probing concern for the future.”
Civic virtue asks us to contribute to the overall public good. For all their highly-charged debates about the details of a new Republic, that’s what the Founders focused on – the publicgood.