"You can't negotiate with Democrats; they have to be defeated."
That's what a clerical friend reports hearing last week from a Fox-News-watching member of his congregation. It's hardly news to me, of course, that many Republicans have taken on that attitude. Certain well-known media personalities have been trumpeting it for years, so it's not surprising that their listeners/viewers have come to regard Democrats and/or liberals as an alien species hostile to core American values.
That widely held belief probably made the failure of the so-called "super-committee" earlier this week inevitable. Many people seem to think that if Congress had accepted the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, we could be on our way toward a grand bargain that will save our country from the precipice. In fact, it's clear that the Democrats on the super-committee were willing to accept an agreement that was well to the right of what Simpson-Bowles recommended, and the Republicans still rejected it. In their eyes, no compromise is possible; anything the Democrats propose must be defeated, as must the Democrats themselves.
The 112th Congress, in other words, has shipwrecked on its own hyper-partisanship. This much was clear after the debt-ceiling fiasco last summer, but what needs to be repeated as much as possible is that both parties were not complicit in the disaster. Only one party has insisted on driving us over this cliff.
Let me illustrate the significance of that point by returning to the analogy I raised last month in my post titled "The Carriage and the Brakes." Regardless of what Rush Limbaugh might think, all of us Americans are in this together. Both conservatives and liberals aim to maintain a democracy based on free-market economics; the differences are over how fast the process should be allowed to go and when, and how firmly, the brakes need to be applied. Since we're all invested in the ultimate success of the process, it is fair to say that in the broader historical sense, all Americans are really liberals. We don't see a serious political faction calling for the reinstatement of monarchy and the abandonment of representative government.
Since the success of our democracy matters to all of us, we should value and respect each others' opinions, not for idealistic reasons but for deeply practical ones. If the brakes are applied too hard and too often, no forward motion will occur. However, if the brakes are not applied, the carriage will be destroyed. The driver should value the brakeman for the same reason the brakeman values the driver; without both doing their jobs, neither of them is going to get anywhere in one piece.
What we are now witnessing, however, is a situation in which the driver wants to kick the brakeman permanently off the carriage and run it with no safety mechanism in place. There are enough people, unfortunately, whose grasp of reality is sufficiently tenuous that they find this vision appealing. In a Manichean world-view, you defeat your enemies rather than compromising with them. In a democracy, though, that doesn't work; all that will happen is that we'll end up in the ditch together. In fact, that's where we already are, and the sooner the us vs. them mentality is dropped, the better off we'll all be.
It's not the Democrats whose attitude will need to change to make that happen.