Politics has a bad reputation these days. Polls show that more people disapprove of how President Obama is governing than approve of it. Congressional approval ratings stand at an abysmally low 12 percent.
The reason? Our nation is sliding toward bankruptcy, but the political class cannot agree on how to apply the brakes. The Tea Party backlash of 2010 against the Democrats' massive but arguably ineffective "stimulus" spending was a shot across the bow of our ship of state. The President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the Simpson-Bowles Commission) reported in December 2010, but the president withheld his support.
Earlier this year, unable to agree on deficit cutting measures as a condition for raising the national debt ceiling, Congress punted the decision down the road, entrusting it to a supercommittee of six Democrats and six Republicans. But this week, deadlocked over the choice between raising taxes and cutting spending, that committee failed to produce a plan.
As troubling as this impasse in the midst of crisis is, even more troubling is the growing impatience with not just politicians but with politics itself, i.e., with the mechanics of popular self-government. In September, North Carolina's Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue suggested that we suspend the upcoming election cycle so that congressional leaders would be free simply to do what is right for the country without having to worry about political consequences:
"I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won't hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover. I really hope that someone can agree with me on that. You want people who don't worry about the next election."
So it is the view of this state governor that in serious matters it is our system of democratic accountability that prevents our good-natured political leadership from promoting the common good. She is arguing in public(!) that the way to solve our present political difficulties is, essentially, to suspend the Constitution and grant emergency powers to Congress.
Perdue is not the first to say such things. Just 18 months ago, actor-director Woody Allen told a Spanish magazine that Barack Obama needs to be given dictatorial power for just a "few years" to set everything in proper order for moving forward again democratically. This view expresses impatience with the messiness of free government, which is in part the necessity of persuading your neighbors in sufficient numbers to put your views into law.
Well, Hollywood folks say the darnedest things. But immediately afterward, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, said the same thing on Meet the Press, and veteran journalist Andrea Mitchell of NBC News agreed with him.
Repeating what he wrote in his 2008 book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and lamenting the disappearance of the political middle, Friedman mused:
"I have fantasized-don't get me wrong-but that what if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment."
The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot cried out, "We'd all be in jail if we were China for a second," trying to wake Friedman and Mitchell from their nostalgie du fascisme.
When times of crisis and deep political division coincide, citizens in a democracy can become impatient with their neighbors and flirt with the authoritarian temptation. In 1944, Judge Learned Hand described the "spirit of liberty" as "the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." That is the democratic republican spirit. It is humble regarding oneself and respectful of one's neighbor. Living by the rule of law is one way we express that spirit.
The answer to political paralysis is not less politics, but more: political discussion, political involvement, and political accountability on Election Day.