We’ve just about managed to remove courage from American politics entirely.
I won’t claim there was ever a “golden age” of politics, in the U.S. or anywhere else–it’s always been a dirty, messy business, in which men and women of varying shades of integrity debate in public and make deals in private. It’s always been characterized by shifting alliances, by backstabbing and lying, by compromising on matters of principle in order to get anything done. At its best, it’s a lot like a reality TV show; at its worst…well, at its worst, it must look something like what we have right now.
That’s not true. At its worst, it looks like Germany in the 1930s, or the Republic of Rome in the first century BCE–the politicians become so inept, so cowardly and incompetent and self-serving, that a strongman steps in and changes the structure of government entirely. We’re not there yet.
But we’re headed that way.
I watched the government shutdown last month with amusement and horror. Amusement because of all the posturing and grandstanding and theatrics from both sides that ultimately accomplished nothing, and horror because a minority of lawmakers tried to hijack our political process to undo an established law that seems like it might be better than what we had before–without offering a better solution.
When it was over, they stood tall and patted themselves on the back for their courageous, principled stand against the majority’s massive spending machine. But it wasn’t a courageous stand. They stood long enough to get lots of air time, to be seen taking a stand, but as soon as the time came to do something that would have been genuinely unpopular, that might have cost them their jobs in the next election–they backed down. Courage 101, folks–if you’re not willing to accept uncomfortable consequences for your actions, it ain’t courage.
And their lack of courage–here’s the hard part–is entirely our fault.
It’s our fault because it’s so much easier to tear down than to build, and we enthusiastically tear down everybody who shows us the tiniest crack to dig our fingers into. And if smartphones and the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have shown us anything, it’s that everybody has cracks. How could they not? They’re human, every one of them. So we burn in effigy everybody who shows a principle we don’t agree with, everybody who makes a mistake, and we complain about being left with those who never take a stand for us to critique and those we haven’t caught being human yet.
We need to accept that the people we elect are going to make mistakes, and they’re going to occasionally take stands we don’t like. Let us elect folks who share our principles, and let them share the reasons for their decisions without shouting them down. We elect them to lead, and leadership, by definition, requires courage.
The alternative is a short trip to a dictatorship. And I don’t think any of us wants that.