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The Art Of The Possible…

Earlier today, I was e-mailing The Guy I Am Currently Dating on the subject of politics. He’d sent me a link to an article that raised the valid point that Americans are living in one of the most politically divisive cultures in well over a century. The article pointed out that even the Conservative vs. Liberal divisiveness that characterised the Prohibition years and the civil rights/Vietnam era didn’t have the same polarizing effect on Congress that our present situation has, although the average American typically had a much stronger political stance.

I started writing a response on the subject via e-mail, but it grew long, and turned itself into a blog. :) So, here it is:

An interesting thing I’ve noticed about “the general public”, or at least those in the 25-45 age range: I suspect there’s actually less polarization now than there was 4, or even 8 years ago. The thing that has brought people (somewhat) together is the disenchantment of the average voter with the political process, and with politicians. That’s what’s making things like the Stewart/Colbert rally and the Tea Party (yes, I know they’re a legitimate political faction, but I can’t really take them any more seriously than the Jon Stewart rally.) so successful. People are actually getting more involved in the process because they’re more fed up with politics as usual. Whether they’re standing behind something ludicrous that you totally disagree with (i.e. Sarah Palin) or not, people are getting involved and want to make their voices heard in some way that goes beyond politics as usual and Democrat vs. Republican.

Four years ago, American seemed all about conservative vs. liberal. You either hated Bush or loved him. Then, you either loved Obama, or you backed McCain. Obama’s election sort of changed things. Moderates voted for him on both sides of the aisle, and lots of people in the middle switched parties. The polarization of Congress and the fact that fighting along party lines typically doesn’t work for the interests of the people became more obvious and more public. The “average American” has come together with his neighbor, disagreeing about how to run the country, but agreeing that both sides aren’t working for them. In some ways, Obama’s presidency has been a politically divisive one, but also a unifying and eye-opening one.

America isn’t (as) apathetic anymore, and that’s a good thing.

It’s maybe not such a good thing for Obama. The American people didn’t vote for Obama because he’s likeable, smart, or has a magic solution to the country’s problems—even though he is both likeable and smart, and intelligent enough to realise a magic solution doesn’t exist, except in the form of compromise and working together. People voted for Obama because of the idea he symbolised, change. Americans started to stand up and vote against the current political process, only to realise that, in the real world, whoever was elected would need to work within the system, rather than spend all his time trying to dismantle it. Disenchantment is a big problem for presidents; after all, Bush’s presidency became a joke when people saw they voted for an “average American guy with average American values”, and instead got a C-student from Yale who floated through life on his charm and family connections. Obama’s approval rating has fallen dramatically not because of anything he’s done, but because the people voted for a revolutionary, and instead got a diplomat.

It doesn’t matter that a revolutionary, regardless of his or her politics, isn’t likely to succeed in today’s political climate. Some of our strongest Presidents have been level-headed, diplomatic, and able to see the value in taking small steps now that may have a big payoff later. When you get elected by telling everyone you’re out to change the world, a spirit of level-headed compromise and an intelligent plan to work within the system doesn’t look diplomatic. It just looks like you’ve sold out.

The problem with politics is that it’s always big promises, and the spirit of “I think, feel, and live just the way that you do” that gets politicians elected. The reality of politics is that our system doesn’t allow for these huge dramatic changes to occur, and while a President may have big ideas, it requires a great deal of cooperation and compromise on the part of a great number of people to get anything done. So, every 2 or every 4 years, America sighs and says it is tired of not being heard, and of politicians not getting anything done—and the other party takes control. Yet, very little changes, and while some legislation gets passed, it’s typically moderate in nature. The system is not revolutionised, and both conservatives and liberals see the need to compromise.

It’s often been said that the definition of compromise is when neither side walks away happy, but each receives a small piece of what it wanted. The past two years have exemplified that, and while it may not be what America wanted, voters should take a cue from the wisdom in the lesson, rather than calling for dramatic change and big promises from the other side. Otherwise, we’re eternally trapped in a self-destructive, perpetuating cycle, becoming even more disenchanted as time goes by.

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