As I speak to people about the Congress, one question arises more than any other: Why is Congress gridlocked? People are perplexed and disappointed with its performance, and are searching hard for an answer.
The roots of Congress’ dysfunction are complex. But the fundamental reason is that real differences in ideology and principles about both government and governance exist among the voters. At heart, the reason it’s become so hard for Washington to act is that the two parties are being driven by fundamentally incompatible views.
Conservatives place a heavy emphasis on liberty, individual freedom and self-reliance. They have little confidence in government’s ability to play a role in improving society or the economy, and many of them look upon government as destructive, a force that undermines our basic freedom. They are fearful of centralized power, opposed to redistribution of any kind, and opposed to new government programs — or even to improving existing government programs they’d rather see cut. They reject entirely the notion of raising taxes or imposing new regulations on the private sector.
Moreover, a belief has taken hold among some conservatives in recent years that compromise and accommodation are betrayals of their cause. This has put great pressure on GOP leaders not to budge in their negotiations with the White House and Senate Democrats.
Meanwhile, on the “progressive” side — a label that has come to supplant “liberal,” in part because Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s were so effective at demonizing liberals — there is much greater emphasis on using government to narrow economic disparities and help those at the bottom of the income scale. They emphasize its role in providing equality of opportunity for all and individuals’ responsibility to the community around them. Because they have more confidence in government as a constructive force, they have no trouble with the notion of expanding government’s scope to improve Americans’ lives.
In fact, unlike conservatives, they think government can expand freedom when it’s properly applied, by reining in the power of monied interests. While they do not favor a radical centralization of power in the federal government, as some conservatives charge, they are more willing to accept government action — and the legislative compromises that make it possible. Because they have less confidence in the market to solve all problems, they support both the taxes they believe necessary to run programs they like, and regulations to limit the private sector’s more predatory impacts on the environment or society.
The gap between these views appears unbridgeable. It is not, nor are the differences between the two sides as wide as they appear.
That is because most Americans find themselves somewhere between the extremes, able to see merit in both conservative and progressive ideas. When I was in office, I often found myself thinking that many of my constituents were conservative, moderate and liberal all at the same time. That hasn’t changed. As a whole, Americans do not want excessive government or heavy-handed bureaucracy, but they do want programs that help them, like Social Security and Medicare. They are dedicated to both individual freedom and opportunity and to community obligation, and they don’t see them as mutually contradictory. More than anything else, especially these days, they want to see moderation and cooperation from their political leaders.
There may be dysfunction in Washington, but the system can still work. When policy makers gather (I’ve seen this countless times) ideology fades, pragmatism rises, and the question becomes, “What can we do to fix the situation?” That’s where most Americans find themselves. They do not see government as evil, though they are often disappointed in its practice and its practitioners. They are wary of excessive government, but again and again they turn to government at some level to help solve the problems they complain about, and they want it to work effectively and efficiently.
In the end, Congress usually ends up about where most Americans are and want it to be. So I’m not surprised to find how, when dire problems confront them, both conservatives and progressives in Washington find their inner pragmatist.
Lee Hamilton, who lived in Chattanooga as a youth, is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University (www.centeroncongress.org). He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.