Politics

Politics: Increasingly Panicked, Paralyzed, Pathetic

When every problem we face is treated as an apocalyptic crisis, it's hard to get things done.

Robin Smith · Jan. 13, 2020

There are days when Americans read their newspapers, watch news channels, consume digital content for updates, and see social-media posts that offer a diametrically opposing assessment of most everything from the economy to foreign policy to the state of opportunity for current and future generations. It’s quite noisy and growing even more shrill.

This shrillness didn’t happen overnight, and it will likely get worse if there isn’t a commitment to agree to sets of facts that provide snapshots of reality and work through disagreements to solve problems, not simply sit in paralysis that permits these problems to grow. Oh, and there has to be an admission that not every problem rises to the level of crisis.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to Barack Obama, declared in October 2012. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” In other words, stoke and exploit the fear of the public to execute policies that the public would most likely otherwise have opposed.

Democrats have taken that proclamation to heart. It is now their standard operating procedure when attempting to gain support and approval of policies.

In recent days, to win a policy debate or gain approval of an idea, the priority is to evoke a danger, most often in the absence of any, and to escalate to a loud pitch the volume and intensity of a position. If U.S. politics were assigned a defense readiness alert in 2020, the designation would be DEFCON1 — the most severe in a five-tiered system used by the military to assign levels of threat and danger.

We’ve heard in the last few months that our democracy is in peril of its existence because one president is in office versus another, that our planet will cease to exist in about 12 years due to the extreme climate crisis that is allegedly manmade, and that only racists support merely legal immigration.

Keeping people stirred up in anger prevents real solutions to real problems. Let’s look at the example of education.

Educated individuals earn more because they are self-reliant and empowered to build upon the foundational knowledge they gained. This is a bipartisan statement of fact.

Yet there is disagreement on how this happens — debate over the access to resources and the structure created to give every citizen an equal opportunity, not an equal outcome, is where the divide grows to a canyon.

Allegations fly that one hates public schools and hates teachers if said individual supports the choice of parents to remove their children from stagnant schools to find a better learning environment. If one believes that a vocational certificate is as valuable (if not more so) than a narrow four-year degree like women’s studies, the merits of the facts are often dismissed for posturing around equality and sneers claiming misogyny.

While the topic of education is only one example, the problems remain unresolved as the anger, the heated rhetoric, and the attempts to marginalize prevail. The proof?

In 2019, according to the NationsReportCard.Gov, 34% of fourth graders were at or above proficiency in reading … meaning that 66% were not. That dips to 32% of eighth graders able to read at grade level and improves to only 36% of high-school seniors. More than 60% of our kids, throughout their K-12 years are not able to read at grade level while the crisis swirls around who hates public schools and protecting institutions rather than kids who are denied an opportunity to learn and excel.

Another example of the inability to govern due to the practice of using panic to paralyze authentic progress is in the federal budget. In almost two decades, only seven congressional budgets have been passed, working through all twelve of the standing committees with thorough review, analysis, and debate.

According to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY), “The last time Congress comprehensively reformed the budget process was in 1974.” Enzi goes on to write in his legislative update just last year, “Congress has completed appropriations before the start of the fiscal year only 4 times in the past 40 years. The last time Congress completed all bills on time was 20 years ago, in 1996.”

Americans watch their hard-earned tax dollars leave their paychecks, go to Washington and, instead of going through the careful process of budgeting, get spent in “crisis-driven spending” that always grows exponentially in the showdowns every few months as the government is threatened to shut down due to congressional failure.

Disagreeing is one thing. Being disagreeable is another and obstructing has become the way of the day. All the while, the annual debt grows each year, transparency and accountability in government spending dwindles, and the grossly exaggerated rhetoric soars while problems remain unresolved and polarization intensifies.

Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute is right in his analysis at The Dispatch: “By turning every political dispute into an apocalyptic battle, we’ve rendered ourselves unable to focus on self-government.”

On the political Right and Left, ideological purity exists because of beliefs. This returns us to the first comments of this column. When those beliefs can’t even find a set of facts on which to work toward a common solution, the dysfunction described by Levin’s assessment prevails. “A politics of panic is devoid of prudence and proportion, which ultimately means it is devoid of statesmanship and of responsibility.”

Mr. Levin, yes, not only is America panicked, it’s paralyzed at the federal level. Americans really do deserve better.

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