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The Coakley Chasm and Unbridgeable Depths of American Politics

The Coakley Chasm and Unbridgeable Depths of American Politics

By Stuart H. Brody

Last week, Martha Coakley failed to execute a political assignment so routine that few people gave any thought to the enormous consequences of failure; that is, before it occurred.   She was defeated in her Senate race by Scott Brown whose victory may have spelled the doom of the health care bill that had been the life’s work of his predecessor and the signature domestic issue of his President.  The next day, President Obama shed his customary equilibrium and began attacking the banks in a populist imitation of Brown.

This is but the latest rotation in a cycle of disappointment that has become a tradition in American politics:  expectation of great leadership, brought low by partisanship, followed by stalemate and renewed clamor for deliverance by a fresh messenger of change. 

Last night, in his State of the Union last week, The President sought relief from this story line in his reminiscence of our ancestors pulling together in times of economic upheaval and transformation, to “respond with bold action and big ideas”. Our founding itself was the most remarkable transformation and one of the biggest ideas in history.   The founders dazzled the world with their inventiveness and inspired two centuries of descendants to sustain their noble work by collaboration and compromise.  

From what source though, does the President expect a modern revival of sacrifice and devotion to the common good?    He asked for it from the politicians assembled in the House Chamber last night, but he must know that they are incapable of providing it.   Like warring sects of a once common religion, the parties have sunk into the delusion of encrusted myth.

The Republican myth is the assertion that the “market” has the power to correct all abuses despite overwhelming evidence of its blindness to civil rights, labor fairness, anti trust violations, natural resource exploitation, securities fraud, campaign finance abuse, food and drug security and the list goes on.  In their free market zeal they have elevated cutthroat competition to the level of virtue and have thus abandoned not only the tenets of free enterprise but their faith in a government that has shown remarkable power to educate, heal, invent and build.

The Democrats cling with equal fervor to the myth of government as the prime societal force for good, with the power to ameliorate human nature and deliver us to the threshold of utopia.  Democrats act as if by taxing regulating and spending they can soften every blow of capitalism.  Democrats foist on government these expectations of moral improvement while decrying the very vehicle—our free enterprise system—that has delivered incalculable economic improvement.

The extremism of these political ideologies stymies cooperation and subverts our collective aspirations.   In asserting their agendas, our Senators and Representatives behave in the halls of Congress like members of a radical cult:  dialog through denunciation, communication through confrontation, insistence on personal infallibility, consistency at all costs and the equation of rigidity of belief with personal integrity. 

And so, the chasm gets wider, the excuses for not acting more convoluted, the blame more fierce, the problems deeper and the solutions more distant. 

This past year has made clear that even the charisma of a natural born leader –that old standby of American political revival-is insufficient to bridge this chasm.   Expecting that President Obama can reinvent himself to cure this turmoil is unrealistic and deepens the cycle of disappointment.

Nor can the breakthrough come from some magical unity over policy.  Current economic stresses, looming environmental catastrophe, the chokehold of dependence on foreign oil, freelance terrorism, two endless wars and the dawning realization that we are becoming No. 2 in the world have been insufficient to bring us together politically.

No, the breakthrough will not come from some charismatic repackaging of Presidential rhetoric or magical unification around policy because the politicians, their parties and their egos have become too inflexible to bend to reality.   The breakthrough must come from ordinary men and women, or, from a politician acting like one.

In our individual lives, not as Americans, but as human beings, we bridge our differences by simple gestures:  an act of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity, often without expectation of reciprocation or guarantee of success.   This is the real source of American greatness:  men and women who confirm our impulse for common decency by grace, modesty and humility, as parents, at work, and in their communities. 

Americans like this were so memorably depicted in the movies we flocked to for inspiration during the last depression and from parents and teachers who instilled in us the belief that you could get ahead in America and do it honestly.  Their memory is all but drowned out by the cult of egoism all around us, in sports, business, the media, religion, and, of course, politics. 

Our breakthrough as a people will not come from the podium of political calculation but from the well of personal commitment, from an ordinary person who transcends politics in a simple but extraordinary act. 

Like Rosa Parks refusing to walk to the back of the bus, perhaps a United States Senator will take a few steps across the aisle, pull a colleague from the rubble of partisanship and start leading the nation out of this ego-drenched, cliché-ridden, finger-pointing culture that threatens to permanently squelch our national spirit.  

That would be a story line we might be proud to tell our children when we teach them about what America did in the depression.

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