Thursday, July 28, 2011

THE CRINGE FACTOR: How the debt crisis 'debate' sounds like Vietnam, how compromise has become a four letter word... again

Cringe! Cringe! Cringe!

That's what I'm doing this morning. These Tea Partiers sound so much like I did when I was nineteen it makes my teeth grind.

We, too, made liberal use of the Constitution. We took phrases from the Bible and turned them into slogans. We loved loud speakers -- and loudspeakers -- and cherished cries for revolution. And every invocation ended with the word 'now'.

We saw our movement in the frame of a 1950s cowboy movie. We were the good guys making a stand with honor and bravado, often at our personal Alamo. In fact, the Western movie in American culture exalted martyrdom the way we are told Islam exalts martyrdom.

But, most of all, we hated compromise.

To us, compromise was a four-letter word. OK, 10 letters, but who's counting when you're making a revolution.

I sat in meeting after meeting in dorm rooms and barrooms where those who dared suggest compromise were shouted down. I did some of the shouting. I won't deny that in some situations the impulse to shout down a compromise still crosses my mind... and lips. In those days, we judged the stakes too high and the art of compromise too slimy for what needed to be done. And those who suggested compromise somehow always seemed bound for a life in politics (an equally dirty word) or corporate public relations.

Does any of this sound cringingly familiar?

Now, the country is on the brink partly because the word compromise has become a four-letter word again.

This time it is the right wing who hate compromise, who promise never to compromise. Well, not entirely the right. I'm not sure where to place the libertarians. In a classic definition of conservative and liberal, they exhibit the tendencies of rather extreme liberals. No matter the political geography, compromise is no longer an art in politics; it's a sin.

As I studied politics in my 20s and 30s and began teaching about it in my 40s and 50s, I came to understand compromise better. Words matter, so let me cast this word in a more useful context. In politics, compromise is actually the art of consensus building. Consensus building is what artful politicians used to do. If they wanted to pass a law to pull in government spending, they built an overwhelming hunger for it among their constituents then found ways they could compromise with the other side to create legislation and policy. With consensus on their sides, legislation was easy to pass, generally accepted, and the political earth moved. The presidents who were good at building consensus, got stuff done. The presidents who dug in their heels, usually left office bitter and frustrated.

Take Lyndon Johnson as an example of both. He was a consensus builder of the highest order in the Senate. And in terms of domestic issues, he remained a consensus builder in the presidency. He could put his arms around your shoulders and bring you into the tent with all the skills of a new car salesman who survives late December.

If there is a fence around the junkyard in your neighborhood, you can thank Lyndon Johnson's consensus building skills. If you live in a rural community with a water treatment plant, thank Lyndon Johnson. If you think affirmative action helped tamp down the effects of racism, thank Lyndon Johnson. (Of course, you're free to disagree with the effects of affirmative action...) Lyndon Johnson presided over the last great outpouring of legislation from the American congress, though another compromise artist, Ronald Reagan got a bit done, himself.

But when it came to the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson, the great conciliator, dug in his heels like a pit bull. He said 'no' and 'hell no', made his mind up he wouldn't be the first American president to lose a war, paid way too much attention to the artful lies of his strategists, and left office with his proud head bowed. He refused to compromise and consensus went so strongly the other way, he was left alone on an island of power.

I'm not sure if consensus building is possible today unless you own a cable news outlet. What decision makers are left with is posing. Instead of striking a deal, they strike a pose. It works fine in overnight polls. And, it makes them feel like the cowboys they aren't but want to be. Their supporters -- dwindling it seems -- cheer them on. But the poll numbers are fleeting, especially when nothing happens and things get worse. By the time the next presidential election arrives the country will be so hungry for a conciliator, the current crop of candidates will look like antique gas guzzlers. And, ultimately, like Lyndon Johnson, they'll leave office bitter and bowed.

But, for now, the country suffers.

--Lofflin, just my twenty-cents worth

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