… read the Constitution. Don’t just read it to look at the words and then say, “there! I’ve read the Constitution!” Read it in character. Read it like a slave owner of 1787, seeking to protect his way of life. Read it like a New England businessman bent on securing protections for his aspirations. Read it like a Virginia planter, wary of surrendering his aristocracy to a democratic mob. In so doing, you’ll see that it’s a document full to the brim with compromises, tradeoffs, and concessions. Realize as well that that’s not a bad thing.
What’s bad is when the compromises, tradeoffs, and concessions come to a halt. Politics is the art of the compromise, the “art of the second best,” as one wag put it. We seem to have lost that art in American politics today. Both sides of the aisle are highly polarized, and legislation has ground to a halt. When extremist positions can halt the government of a nation, those positions force a crisis that either succeeds in giving them power or reduces them to irrelevance. The sad thing with that is when an extremist position gains power, it’s typically of an authoritarian bent. Fascists in Italy, Nazis in Germany, Communists in Russia and China, Khmer Rouges in Cambodia, Peronistas in Argentina, Militarists in Chile, Baathists in Iraq and Syria, Khomeini’s party in Iran, Nationalists in Egypt – the list goes on, if you’d like me to keep going, but I’ll stop here as I’ve made my point.
The United States is a special place on earth so long as we continue to be able to make deals with ourselves. That Constitution, written over two centuries ago, endures as a national bond only so far as we’re willing to make compromises and accept the tides of history as they wash over us. Our own descent into extremism over the slavery issue produced our nation’s worst war ever. In terms of repercussions, we still face the fallout of that war today. Although we don’t have any one issue that truly divides the nation today as slavery did in the 1850s, we have the partisans ready to seize upon any issue that, through division, enables them to make a bid for total power. This is a very unsafe place to be.
Now, if extremists aren’t really trying to gain total power and they’re not really extremists, we’re going to need some extraordinary proof to back up those extraordinary claims. Surrender a point or two. Make a concession. Give an inch. Let the government of America continue, inefficient though it may be. The continuance of government lends stability to the nation, and that stability translates into economic growth. We seem to actually have a slight recovery underway, but one more argument over taxes and spending that produces no results is enough to scare us into thinking things will get worse and then it’s goodbye, recovery. Historically, high levels of extremism coupled with hard times produce massive upheavals in government. We were lucky in 1789 that our leaders then weren’t ideologues. They were practical men and they did a practical business in Philadelphia.
Our current system, with the big money of corporations unfettered in the mass media and lobbyists and congressmen rife with corruption, has left the electorate feeling so unempowered that it produced the aimless “Occupy” movement. While there was a bit of excitement to actually have a street protest in the USA, the apathy was so massive that the movement failed to put forward a list of demands. It simply awaited the inevitable police sweep to clear the parks for some other bums to loiter there. The Tea Party was a genuine uprising as well, until the Koch brothers hijacked it to serve their own needs. We’re out of solutions when protest movements either fizzle or become co-opted and the legislatures refuse to compromise.
All we need for a massive crisis would be a galvanizing issue. The global economy could easily provide that issue in the coming year (or even the coming few months), and then we’d be in an awful fix. If the Republicans and Democrats collectively fail to reach a compromise to stabilize the nation, one side or the other may gain the presidency only to lose any ability to govern because of a permanently split Congress.
And that then prompts one more reading of the Constitution, this time as a modern extremist looking for ways to halt all changes other than the ones of his own faction’s choosing. Like any document, the Constitution is one whose words can be twisted to provide perverted meanings contrary to the spirit in which it was written. Our Constitution was written so a diverse group could co-exist peacefully and effectively through compromise and agreement. When we fail to compromise, we fail as a nation.