In the weeks before the debt-ceiling debacle was resolved, Barack Obama took a cultural wander through the recent history of U.S. political dysfunction. He started reading Rick Perlstein's powerful book Nixonland, whose thesis and subtitle, The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, suggest the beginnings of the current political chasm. The President also watched the brilliant 1976 film Network, which predicted our current TV-news carnival. For Obama, these two works are history: he was a child in the '60s, just barely a teenager when Network debuted. For me, they're memory lane. And I can tell you that American dysfunction ain't what it used to be.
What happened in the 1960s and '70s was a major rupture of society. The precipitant was the civil rights movement, which provided the vocabulary and tactics for every subsequent protest, including the Tea Party. But civil rights were serious business; racists went on a murder spree in the South. There were vast urban riots, with dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. The antiwar movement eventually propelled this tragedy into farce, with groups like the Weatherman faction turning the majesty of Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolence on its head. Inevitably, there was a historic reaction against the anarchy, which Richard Nixon wittingly rode to the White House using a racially tinged Southern strategy to get there.
But politics still functioned, despite the societal earthquakes. There were filibusters against the civil rights legislation, but they were overcome. The Democrats in Congress didn't resort to extreme tactics, like a debt-ceiling fight, to stop the war in Vietnam. When impeachment came, it was only because moderate Republicans recognized that Nixon had done violence to the U.S. Constitution; it was a bipartisan effort. The system worked.
Now we seem to have achieved the opposite. Most polling shows a fair amount of consensus in the U.S. about the issues of the day. Indeed, on budget matters, nearly 60% support much of the program that Obama and the Senate's Gang of Six were promoting: long-term deficit reduction, achieved by a mix of revenue increases and spending cuts. Even a majority of self-described Republicans favor this path. The public is also united, significantly, in the belief that our current economic woes are a bigger problem than our long-term deficits and should take priority in Washington.
Normally, this sort of consensus would be fertile ground for government action and this year, it nearly was. Left to their own devices, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner would have come up with a $4 trillion deal over a beer in the clubhouse after their round of golf. They could have reformed the tax code; they could have made a major dent in the old-age entitlement problem that has been obvious for 30 years. The optimism generated by this alone might have kick-started the economy. But the political system has gone catatonic. This is not a problem of partisanship: it is a right-wing strategy.
The President spoke, accurately, of "Washington-inflicted wound[s] on America" when the debt-ceiling deal passed. Most sane Republicans now suspect that the Tea Party is a political heat rash uncomfortable but not fatal. "A significant minority of House conservatives has no interest in actually governing," wrote former Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson in the Washington Post. "They apparently view public office as a way to periodically display their purity." But we don't have much margin for purity in this Republic anymore.
In 1976, when Network appeared, our country was in a state of shock. We had never lost a war until Vietnam. We had recently learned that there were other economic players the OPEC cartel, primarily that could limit our prosperity. There was inflation and stagnation. I spent a good part of that year on the South Side of Chicago watching the steel mills close, a new and puzzling phenomenon. Disturbing trends began, especially the primacy of finance over manufacturing, that have continued to this day. We recovered during Reagan, and recovered again during Clinton, but the basic trends were never really addressed, and now we are still struggling to emerge from our greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression.
As pathetic as it was, the debt-ceiling fight sent a powerful message: there are working majorities in favor of sanity in both the House and the Senate. The President has shown an admirable willingness to compromise on some of his party's most cherished programs. The Senate's Gang of Six has done the same. It's time for Boehner to sequester the Tea Partyers in a rubber-padded romper room, and let the adults pass the deal that both he and the vast majority of Americans want.