I have been watching the debt ceiling debacle with increasing dismay as it’s lurched from failed deals to failed votes. The whole thing has been a farce; it would be funny if the entire global economy and the future of our country weren’t actually at stake. And let’s not kid ourselves: it is. Default would be a disaster. But here we are.
As of this writing, the Speaker of the House couldn’t manage enough votes in his chamber to pass his own plan only a few days before the deadline. This is how bad it’s gotten. I could complain about the radical ultraconservative ideologues who have taken over the House, or the weakness of the Democrats. I could point out that slashing spending and defaulting on our debt in the middle of a recession is the opposite a formula for economic recovery. I could lay out a neat argument suggesting that in times like these, it might be okay to raise taxes on corporate jets so Grandma can get her Social Security check. A lot of people who are smarter and more eloquent than I am have made just those sorts of arguments, though, and it hasn’t made a difference.
This has been the year of politics gone mad. We’ve witnessed some unfathomable lapses of common sense over the past few months. The increasingly deranged debt ceiling drama is one of them. Another was the stunning rejection of a pretty decent concessions deal by Connecticut’s state employees. I was shocked when that vote failed, I really was. I’m shocked that the debt ceiling has brought us to the brink of default, too.
The debt saga and the original failure of the concessions deal are very different things on the face of it. They involve people from opposite ends of the political spectrum (…mostly) and are about different issues. But there’s a common thread there: in both cases people saying “no” were willing to wholeheartedly embrace seemingly radical and foolish solutions instead of compromise. There’s no one more dangerous than the person who believes he’s on a righteous mission.
Why is everything so seemingly dysfunctional this year? Why are some of our representatives in Washington acting in what seems to many of us like a completely destructive and dangerous manner? Why did so many state employees walk away from a decent deal into a buzz saw of layoffs, cuts and closures? It’s not enough to say that they’re blinded by ideology or stuck in an echo chamber; there’s more to it than that.
It’s emotional, it’s personal. The country is falling apart and we’re not sure how to fix it. Our politics seem distant and unrelated to daily life. Our wages don’t grow, our jobs aren’t secure, our cities and towns are falling to pieces, our taxes keep going up, our health is getting worse, these wars are still happening, and no one has been able to fix any of it. The past decade has been painful beyond belief for this country, how much more are we supposed to take?
This is how radicalism happens. Is it any wonder that some people, in defiance of all logic and common sense, are sitting down and saying “Enough!” There’s a feeling out there that rigid lines have to be drawn if we’re going to protect what’s left, and like desperate fighters on a barricade they’re willing to do anything to defend them. That’s why people around the world are quietly preparing for America to default, and it’s why Gov. Dannel P. Malloy rates chances of a revised union package’s passage, even with relaxed union rules, at only 50-50.
At the heart of the fight over the debt ceiling and the concessions package is a deep, deep distrust in political leaders (often for good reason) and utter disillusionment with our institutions. Radicalism is like a tornado. It can do a lot of damage, but it passes quickly. This distrust and disillusionment, though, may be a lot harder to shake off, and may ultimately do much more damage. The debt debacle and the union vote are both just symptoms of this much bigger problem, and it will take far more than just a few pieces of legislation or even another election to fix it.
I drive to work through a neighborhood hit hard by the tornado that ripped through Springfield two months ago. There is one street which is nothing but the ghostly shells of destroyed public housing. Their roofs are gone, walls of splintered plywood are exposed, and the grass around them is growing high. I know there’s a process for these things and I know there’s some sort of government system in place. Still, I can’t help wondering if it’ll ever be made right again.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.