Democracy Without Dialogue; How Exactly is this Supposed to Work?

At what point is a dialogue impossible?  What are the consequences if the various sides in an argument cannot find any common ground?   These are the questions that came to my mind as a consequence of several stories making the rounds in the past couple of days.  And sadly, I don’t have a good place for any of this.

Story #1: The Debt Ceiling.  I watched chunks of President Obama’s press conference yesterday and read a number of Republican responses.  There were a lot of insights into the President’s personality that had me nodding my head and chuckling at times while all the while I searched for some sign that a solution was around the corner.   The President seems to be a man who cannot be nice just to be nice.  He might even take the attacks on his personality personally and I get that too.  His comments during the press conference about how GOP Congressmen and their families are happy to come up to him during picnics and get pictures taken, but then these same Congressmen are ripping him the next day in front of the cameras, shows that he might have trouble separating the politics from the person.  He allegedly told a reporter that he had played golf with John Boehner last year and then asked “How has that worked out?”  So one of the reasons we’re struggling for compromise when we need it most is that the President apparently refuses to pretend that a climate for cooperation exists when it obviously doesn’t.

His claim that he was not going to put a gun to the heads of the American people over budget cuts was a dramatic and I presume intentionally emotional metaphor for how he sees Republican tactics heading into the debt ceiling deadlines.   The President sees the issues as completely separate.   “Extend the debt ceiling and then we’ll talk spending cuts” is his strategy and he seems completely unwilling to have the two issues linked beyond that.  From an economic standpoint, of course, he’s right.  The debt ceiling does not authorize any new spending, as many are led to believe, but rather only allows for the paying of bills already authorized.

On the Republic side, both Mitch McConnell, who once boldly stated that the job of the Congress in 2009 was to make sure the President wasn’t reelected in 2012, and John Boehner responded to the President’s news conference by saying that the only workable strategy was to cut spending first and then talk about the debt ceiling.   And for their side, this might be the best tactic to get a reduction in government spending, which, of course, may not even be good for the economy.  It does, however, temporarily appease those who believe that all government spending beyond that which directly benefits them, is evil.  There is no better symbol of the disconnect between selfish interests and the common good than this view.

So we have two young boys standing at the edge of a freezing pool on a crisp summer morning as they prepare for swimming lessons engaged in a never-ending loop of: “You first!” This won’t result in any swimming lesson until someone either gets the courage to jump, or someone with more determination sneaks up behind them and gives them both a firm shove in the back.

Story #2: The harassment of Gene Rosen.  Who?  Gene Rosen is a man in Newtown, Connecticut, who on the day of the massacre found several children wandering around near his home claiming “We can’t go back to school.  Our teacher is dead.”  Rosen took the children into his house and kept them calm until they could be claimed by their parents.  Rosen had no idea if he would become the target of crazed gunmen who were hunting down children.  He simply did what any thoughtful person would do and put the safety of the children ahead of his own.   His reward?  The lunatic fringe, who is claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax designed by President Obama so he can confiscate all guns, has taken to attacking Mr. Rosen for his apparent role in the hoax.   You can read his story here.

There are many sides to the gun debate.   An overwhelming number of people support the right of the people to keep and bear arms, though an overwhelming number of them don’t believe that means assault rifles.   Other people see any attempt to limit arms in any way as the first step to complete confiscation of all weapons.   And others don’t see why the Second Amendment ought to exist at all.

So as parents in Newtown awake each morning to empty beds and vacant seats at the breakfast table and the god-awful pain that must greet them every time they open their eyes to start a new day, one of the men who comforted six children who survived is being vilified for his role in the grand hoax that took their children from them.

Where can the gun debate begin in this atmosphere?  This is more than standing on the edge of cold pool waiting for someone to take the first step.  This can’t be worked out over a golf game or at a picnic.  A fundamental shift in what it means to live in a democratic society is needed and that shift clearly lacks a catalyst.  If the bodies of 20 children lying dead in a school can’t bring people to the table, I am lost to imagine what would.

All sides in nearly every political debate are fond of calling upon the Founding Fathers to support their side.  Well, here’s one side of the Founding Fathers that nearly everyone seems to have forgotten.  The chasms between the states in 1787 were huge.  The economic life of states in the South seemed to depend on the preservation of slavery.  The ethical and moral life of the entire country seemed to depend on its abolition.  In the end, we ended up with a Constitution that both sides pretty much hated.  The South had to accept that there was an inevitable end to slavery coming when a future ban on the importation of slaves was included in the Constitution, and the North had to accept that the United States would continue the hypocrisy of calling ourselves “free” when millions of us were not.   But compromise they did, and for better or worse, the nation was born. True, it took the lives of 700,000 people to pay the I.O.U. written into the original Constitution, but that’s an entirely different story.

If it was possible to find compromise then on an issue with much higher stakes than today’s budget and gun battles, is it not possible for us to do the same?  Apparently not until the President admits he set up Sandy Hook.

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