I’m not all that upset about Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race.
My Democratic friends are saying I’ve lost my mind.
My Republican friends (yes, I have one or two) are wondering what I’m up to.
For one thing, Senator-elect Brown’s Chevy truck with 200,000 miles on it sparks new hope for the possibility of my own Senate seat some day. My truck has 165,000 miles on it. (Ok, it’s a Honda CRV, which is barely classified as a truck, and obviously the wrong make for national politics, though we Marylanders tend to be a little more tolerant of such things.)
Seriously, while the idea that a relatively unknown Republican would win the “Ted Kennedy” Senate seat in Massachusetts occurred to no one just two months ago (except Scott Brown and those who supported him), this jolt to the national legislative scene will prove to be immensely healthy in several ways.
First, the filibuster-proof Senate was a bad idea all along. In a Democracy, no matter what party we support, all of us citizens should embrace the necessity and desirablity of politics as the art of compromise among equally serious and well-considered interests. The whole idea of the filibuster is preposterous as well, but surely, that unfortunate political tactic should not even be on the table if the responsible politicians from both parties would work together in crafting legislation and laws that reflected the true will of the People, not just the will of Democrats or Republicans. (Perhaps all 535 members of Congress should re-read John Stuart Mill on the dangers of the tyranny of the majority.) The Democrats need this “wake-up call” to get out of their complacency, and the Republicans need to use their new-found leverage prudently, lest by reverting to past bad form they lose the moment once again.
Second, the “danger” that the House and Senate might actually have to produce laws forged through shoulder-to-shoulder engagement by members of both parties should encourage the Obama Administration and leadership in the House and Senate to create more acceptable legislative packages. This nation absolutely needs reform of the health insurance system, but clearly the approaching stalemate over the House and Senate versions of the bill signified trouble even before Brown’s election. We need leadership across-the-boards who are leaders for “We, the People” and not just leaders of specific political parties. The People have many different opinions about health care, war and peace, the economy and what should happen to improve education — citizens are not monolithic, and both major parties should stop treating this nation’s 300 million+ citizens as if we all thought only one way or the other. Good leadership pierces through party lines to get at real solutions for the common good.
Third, we need our political leaders to show some backbone in pushing back on special interests that have only one interest, their own. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week allowing virtually unfettered corporate spending on political campaigns will make it even harder for politicians to have the gumption to stand up to one-dimensional special interests. But this puzzling ruling will make it even more important for citizens — We, the People, with our small change pocketbooks and real economic concerns — to engage with the political process directly so that we can be sure that ALL voices are heard, not just the wealthiest.
We citizens also need to stop our own obsession with single-issue politics. This is the most pluralistic nation on the face of the earth, ever in history, and with more than 300 million citizens today, we have an obligation to the health of our Democracy to accept compromise. The rigidity of single-issue politics not only fractures our communal bonds, but worse, it guarantees that workable solutions become impossible because one dimension of a solution might not be pleasing to one group.
So, for example, it makes zero sense for pro-life advocates to appear to lobby against health care reform, since access to health care is fundamentally a life issue for millions of people, especially children. Calling the health care bill an “anti-life bill” as Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) did at the March for Life last week is the kind of wild rhetoric that does a grave injustice to people who really need a solution to the health care crisis. People are dying because they can’t afford decent health care; isn’t that a pro-life issue, too? Work to craft a bill that restricts abortion if necessary, yes, but do not crusade to “kill the bill” as if health care reform, itself, is unimportant for this nation’s citizens and quality of life. This is but one example of the polarization that degrades not only our political environment but our social fabric.
And, before my pro-life friends get worked-up about the paragraph above, I wrote a blog with similar concerns about the over-the-top rhetoric of pro-choice advocates who threatened to go to war against Democrats when the House version of the health care bill passed in November without abortion funding, and that blog invited a rather pungent reply by Frances Kissling. I stand by my centrism — our Democracy needs passionate advocacy, yes, but at the end of the day we also need respectful and thoughtful compromise in order to achieve the best ends for the common good.
In a terrific article in the Philadelphia Inquirer today, columnist Mark Bowden writes about political oratory and the need to take great oratory more seriously. He writes, “The decline of public speaking in this country contributes to a culture of political stalemate. When political debate consists of rival camps hurling stink bombs at each other over an impassable ideological wall, it suggests there are no answers to the serious problems of our day, only conflict. Politics ceases to be the art of resolving that conflict through dialogue, reason, and compromise, and becomes a form of entertainment. Restoring substantive argument to political debate reasserts the importance of statesmanship. It sees the higher calling of politics, which is to make things happen in a democracy.”
I recommend the full article, and also, we might take up an assignment to go back and read all of the great speeches he cites as evidence that thoughtful, well-reasoned argumentation, not partisan bickering and filibustering, needs to be restored to center stage on Capitol Hill.
Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts is not really a game-changer for either the Democrats or Republicans. Rather, his election reminds us that the real game has the kind of stakes that require thoughtful and progressive intellectual engagement by every member of Congress and all citizens; no one has a default position, everyone must get into the game.
The game is on. Let’s play it as if our lives depended on the outcome. In fact, they do.
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Read “First Senator of the Reality Show Era” on Politico