Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ross Douthat: Getting the Balance Wrong

Audi Alteram Partem

--Hear the Other Side

Ross Douthat instructs us in today's New York Times, "Shake yourself free of the toils of partisanship, and let your mind rove more widely and freely...And whenever you're tempted to hurl away an article in disgust, that's exactly when you should turn the page or swipe the screen and keep on reading, to see what else the other side might have to say."

Like David Brooks, Douthat has made a living playing the role of the dispassionate, rational, approachable conservative.  The New York Times publishes these two as if they represented a lively conservative movement, as if they are the William F. Buckley, George Will ilk of amusing, thought provoking, waspish foil to smug liberalism.
The problem is, these are conservatives who do not represent a conservative wing, because they are the only extant surviving members of the species. They are the last two Dodos, and even Dodos were not all that benign.

Their pitch is, come let us reason together. Let us be Civil. 
We saw what that approach got us in the first Presidential debate, where Mitt Romney rolled over Jim Lehrer's civility with a Panzer tank and crushed any hope of a restrained, reasoned discussion in the first three minutes.

As for an interesting conservative backbench:  Charles Krauthammer is so pathological, just watching him on television one thinks of that deranged general in Dr. Strangelove who rides the nuclear bomb to its target like a cowboy on a wild horse.  George Will has the capacity to be amusing, but he is really nothing more than an old lady gossip, incapable of discerning when he has been fed the wrong answers at his Old Ebbet's Grill lunch. For me, the quintessential George Will appeared in 1981, when the AIDS epidemic was fresh,  and he published a story about how AIDS will never infect heterosexuals--it was destined to be a queer disease, promulgated and requiring anal intercourse with disruption of normal rectal tissues.  One can only imagine where he got this line, but the fact is, he did not have the intelligence or training to ask hard questions before publishing this stuff as received truth.  It was, like so much else which conservative belief is based upon, wishful thinking. 

In light of these circumstances, it is difficult to read and engage "other side" because the other side so rarely has anything reasonable to say.  

Consider the "gridlock" in Congress over the Fiscal Cliff. This is not a case of if only the Democrats would give a little and the Republicans would give a little...The Republicans, virtually every last one of them, have become so extreme, there is no room left for governing. They have purged, driven away or exiled any Republican who even verges on moderation.  

The House of Representatives Republicans have en masse, bound themselves to a pledge to never raise taxes, which is to say, to simply not govern. As long as you have a party dedicated to this kind of intransigence, how can you "hear the other side?" The other side is saying, "No government. Kill Medicare by converting it to Coupon Care and call it "saving" Medicare. Kill Social Security and call it fiscal responsibility. Never ask millionaires to pay more taxes. Spend only on defense, let everything else take care of itself.

Imagine if Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens had taken Mr. Douthat's counsel:  Let's just listen to the other side and allow slavery to persist. Economic forces will eventually make it go away. Or maybe we should listen to the plan of phasing out slavery on a timetable which would end slavery by 1900. 
Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement had taken the advice that Southern whites were not ready for integrated schools and we risked raising expectations of Blacks which could never be met, expectations for equal opportunity in education, employment and housing and that would cause a violent backlash.

All these reasonable conservative ideas were given a hearing and discarded. 
But at least there was room in some of these discussions for a shift in opinion. One side had not dug in.

When you listened to the debate on the floor of Congress in the movie Lincoln  (which was presumably historically as accurate as Doris Kearns Goodwin could make it) and heard the shock from the Democrats of the 1860's( who were the conservative party then,) when you heard them say there could never be a place for Negroes voting, or for women voting or for interracial marriage or for any sort of multiracial society, you have some idea of the sort of problem we have today, as we look across the aisle and see the face of fanatic opposition. 

The other side wants to drown government in a bathtub.

They are, at best fanatics, at worst anarchists. 

How do you expand your mind to listen to that?

In his masterful Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln wrestled with the existential idea of "why" the Civil War had come about. If it was God's will, why? The best he could come up with was the rather Old Testament notion that a vengeful God required a deep and abiding wrong be paid for with blood. The wrong that was slavery could not simply be phased out and patted on the head told to go away.   No, the murders and enslavement, and wrecking of families and lives ruined had to be atoned for.

 So each drop of blood drawn by the bondman's whip had to be paid for by a drop of blood drawn by the sword, as Lincoln reckoned.

I think we are in the same place now, with respect to the Tea Party Republicans. There is no reasoning, no compromising with those who "think" like these fanatics. You have to simply oppose them with whatever tools you have. 

Our system of government is designed to thwart action, with checks and balances meant to prevent action rather than to expedite it. 

Until 2014, there are no elections to expunge the fanatics. So what do we do until then? The Tea Party has its foot rammed on the brake of government. 

We can only jam our foot on the accelerator and hope the car moves forward. If it remains, wheels spinning in place, we can only point to the root cause of the problem and hope the American people can see the truth, not the half truth of Mr. Douthat, but the full truth, in full light of day. 

We are still stuck with the Tea Party of 2010. The Radical Tea Republican Party has the power to send us back into recession, to reverse the slow progress we have seen emerge.  

The only question is:  Can we find a way to overwhelm the fanatical right?

Currently, I see no path forward, other than attempting to shame the fanatics. 

Not a good bet.

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