Shutdown Rooted in Partisanship, Moralizing of Opposition

The Editorial Board

Disappointment with Congressional performance might seem hard to quantify this week, as an uncompromising House of Representatives rendered the government defunct and the American public dismayed on Tuesday by failing to reach an agreement that would sustain governmental operations. Though frustration mounts with each passing day, legislators have likely already developed a tough skin. As indicated by Gallup polls, today’s Congress hardly enjoys a great degree of popularity. Approval ratings have bounced between the low to high teens over the last year, and next month’s numbers might even dip into the single digits.

Congressional members have brought the political process to a virtual standstill, succeeding in holding government employees’ paychecks hostage, closing national parks, initiating the return of Peace Corps volunteers, closing government-funded Head Start Preschool programs and compromising the government-subsidized food received by 9 million women and children. This list is hardly exhaustive, and many students at Oberlin whose parents work for the federal government feel the strain of furlough on a personal level.

The impulse to focus all energy on blaming House Republicans, in chorus with Obama and his fellow Democrats, is hard to avoid. Despite attempts to reach a decision and preclude a disaster of this magnitude, Republicans voted 42 times to repeal or otherwise undermine implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which took effect Wednesday in spite of the protestations.

The dangers of a vocal minority of the government having such a disproportionate sway over the desires of the majority are myriad. In addition to setting a bad precedent for the state of future Congressional discourse, it threatens the current economic recovery, all at the cost of those who rely most heavily on assistance from the government.

Though the House Republicans should be held accountable for their unrealistic attempt to play chicken with Obama, more systemic issues are also at play. The two-party system inherently gives rise to a political climate of opposing camps, and our republic’s representational elections foment a dynamic of confrontation. Republican representa- tives might not be able to act on campaign promises to prevent “socialized medicine” — when in fact the bill already passed through Congress and the Supreme Court — but they’re certainly able to try by obstructing compromise and refusing to reach an agreement.

These issues should not downplay the legitimate disappointment felt by the electorate, but it’s worth considering the media and citizenry’s role in this problem.

The conversation surrounding socialized medicine is just one of many political hot-button issues that prompts moralizing the opponent on the part of both Democrats and Republicans. If you’re against it, you’re a privileged, heartless one-percenter that doesn’t care about the safety and well-being of others; if you’re in favor, you’re stripping folks of their civil rights and imposing socialism on free-marketeering Americans.

But by further entrenching ourselves in the rhetoric of partisanship, we run the risk of exacerbating the very problem that sparked this conundrum. While political ideology is often reflective of values, and values may take root in morality, it’s not always the case that political proclivities clearly translate into notions of good and evil. By moralizing political viewpoints, it becomes impossible for legislators to remain true to local constituencies while also effectively doing their job, i.e., maintaining the functions of the government. Compromising with the “enemy,” particularly when the enemy is considered to have a fundamentally deplorable notion of what progress means for America, is not politically viable for politicians seeking re-election. The desire to save face and remain true to deep-set political and moral notions of right and wrong precludes the potential for effective legislating.

At Oberlin, we see this very sentiment echoed in our conversations regarding many hot-button issues. For example, anti-fracking proponents correlate environmental concerns to issues of social justice, poverty and classism. And although these more ethically-charged concerns inform the conversation regarding sustainable energy, arguments from the other side are presented within this moralistic framework.

This is not to say that these correlations are inappropriately linked; bringing these concerns to the fore can serve to elucidate some of the larger implications of energy policy. But when the nature of debates rests solely upon the creation of a morally superior “us” acting against the evil “other,” it serves only to further entrench the political divide rather than inspiring productive discussions regarding the locus of actual political contentions. In a time when the most vulnerable Americans who are feeling the brunt of the government shutdown, let’s focus, for once, on actually getting something done.