The current political system in Washington encourages legislative gridlock and fosters a “tremendous sense of tribalism that can’t be underestimated,” said New York Times columnist David Brooks. Relationships across party lines are now rare, he said.
“I try to speak to three politicians a day, both Democrats and Republicans, and they don’t know each other anymore.”
Brooks delivered the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture on “Politics and Culture in the Age of Obama” to a full house at the Sanford School of Public Policy on Nov. 9. The talk was part of new series of lectures, courses, and research focused on the causes and consequences of legislative stalemate.
“We’ve now had three presidents who wanted to change the tone in Washington and they all failed,” Brooks said. Change will have to come from outside the beltline, he said, partly through new social norms.
“I didn’t think there was a window for a third party until now, but with both parties having such low ratings, a centrist party is a possibility,” he said.
The centrist strain in American politics, which Brooks traces to Alexander Hamilton, promotes social mobility and in the past helped create public school systems and other public infrastructure.
While he respects and admires President Barack Obama, and had even written a column encouraging him to run for president, Brooks believes the Obama administration “misread the country and tried to create too much change too fast.” Convinced they were in a new historical era, the administration introduced 136 initiatives in its first six months.
“The country had a tremendous sense of shame over debt and no trust in government to do the right thing,” Brooks said. Decisions that boosted the national debt to the point where the interest payments alone are $800 billion a year prompted a backlash.
That backlash included the emergence of the Tea Party, which Brooks said “uses Abbie Hoffman means to achieve Norman Rockwell ends.” Brooks attributed rising partisanship to increasing social inequality.
“There are independent causes fusing to form this culture,” he said. Politicians used to move their families to Washington and socialize together on the weekends, now they fly home on Thursday night. Geography also contributes as people move into polarized districts. The media is more partisan and fragmented, although he joked, “More Americans own ferrets than watch Fox News.”
“Where social groupings once were, there is now a spiritual hole filled with partisanship, where compromise is dishonor,” he said. This has led to stagnation in Congress, with little movement on the debt, financial reform or the environment. Brooks sees the possibility of another fiscal crisis in 10 years, perhaps even national bankruptcy if gridlock continues.
“I remain optimistic,” he said, especially when considering the new generation of students. All social indicators are good, including reduced teen pregnancy and crime. “This is the most wholesome, responsible generation ever,” he said. “If people can rally to elect Obama and create the Tea Party,” he said, they can rally again to create change.
The talk was the opening keynote of a new Sanford School program on American politics, “Gridlock: Can Our System Address America’s Big Problems?” Led by David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice of public policy, and Donald H. Taylor, associate professor of public policy, the two-year series, will explore problems in our current politics that are crippling our ability to deal with big challenges such as the deficit, health care reform, immigration reform, and energy dependence.
The program will run until the 2012 presidential election, and will include an in-depth course on political gridlock, an undergraduate research component, a speakers’ series and a public blog called Gridlock (www.dukegridlock.blogspot.com).
Photo credit: Kevin Siefert
David Brooks at the Sanford School.
Photo by Kevin Siefert