The political discourse in the United States is in dangerous territory. Ideological hate, partisan hostility, and policy brinkmanship are becoming a real national crisis.
Politicians and the public are the ones to blame – and also the sole source of potential redemption.
The current talks (or the lack of) around the 2020 budget show the rotten state of American politics.
On 11 March, President Trump presented his budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year. He called for a record US$4.75 trillion total, which includes a fivefold increase to the southern wall funding coupled with sharp cuts to sensitive domestic areas like education, health and environmental protection – all in all guaranteeing trillion-dollar deficits for the foreseeable future.
Even for partisan budget proposals, the latest one goes the extra mile.
Presidential budget proposals are unlikely to have much effect on actual spending levels, which are controlled by Congress. Yet the document usually signals the administration’s priorities and sets the tone for the political debate around the fiscal budget.
If so, the White House’s current budget proposal sends a clear message: Trump is not particularly interested in debate, only in firing up the Trumpian base for the election next year.
Democrats are not interested in constructive talks, either. Catering to its own diehard voters, the opposition refuses to offer (or accept) an olive branch: Trump’s 2020 budget proposal was promptly dismissed as “dead on arrival”.
This is a short-sighted and counterproductive approach to politics from both sides of the aisle.
Farewell to politics as the art of the possible
The White House’s new $8 billion request to fence the southern border, for instance, would be petty cash – equivalent to 0.2 percent of the total federal budget – in exchange for a grand compromise on the opposition’s demands regarding undocumented migrants.
Alas, neither side is interested in concessions.
President Trump knows his supporters would decry any compromise favouring “illegal aliens”.
For the Democrats, their opposition is not about the fence’s dubious efficacy and flagrant waste of resources. Denying the wall is rather a masterclass in realpolitik: The big-and-beautiful Southern Wall was Trump’s signature campaign promise; if built, the risk of Trump’s re-election in 2020 would be too great to bear for the Democrats.
Greetings to politics as the art of the loathing
The polarisation of American politics is a slow process in the making. Elements of it can be traced from the civil rights movement to the Nixon years to the Clinton impeachment to the Iraq war.
Yet the last 10 years have witnessed a swift spike in toxic partisanship.
Mounting evidence emerges by the hour of a poisonous atmosphere in American politics where opposing groups cannot, and will not, engage in productive talks.
According to a new study, for instance, almost half the Republican and Democratic voters believe members of the opposition party “are not just worse for politics — they are downright evil”; with 20 percent of voters certain that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.”
Worse, the same study found that one in five Democrats and one in six Republicans agree they would be “better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died”.
In this lethal partisan territory, politicians are more likely to be successful by resonating with those tribal, active voters who are unbent by facts and reasoning.
In the meantime, the silent majority remain just that: silent.
New Zealand has - so far - done better
Fortunately, the New Zealand political landscape is far from the toxic environment in American shores.
Indeed, our civil polity has paid us good dividends, with the 1993 Electoral Act and the 1988 Reserve Bank Act as good examples of the Kiwi Parliament at its best.
The current compromise between the Government and the Opposition on the implementation of the Zero Carbon Bill shows there is hope for further bipartisanship.
Yet the construction of a civil society based on reasoning and cooperation is a constant duty – the massacre in Christchurch last week is a tragic reminder that hate forces should not be underestimated.
As partisan hate becomes a national crisis in the land of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, New Zealand should be ever vigilant to upholding divergence of views, fair play and acceptance of facts.