An old friend who has been active in politics for more than 30 years tells me he’s giving up. “I can’t stomach what’s going on in Washington anymore,” he says. “The hell with all of them. I have better things to do with my life.”
My friend is falling into the trap that the extreme right wants all of us to fall into — such disgust and cynicism that we all give up on politics. Then they’re free to take over.
Republicans blame the shutdown and possible default on the nation’s debt on the president’s “unwillingness to negotiate” over the Affordable Care Act. But that law has already been negotiated. It passed both houses of Congress. It withstood a Supreme Court challenge.
The ACA is hardly perfect, but neither was Social Security or Medicare when first enacted. The Constitution allows Congress to amend or delay laws that don’t work as well as they were intended, or even to repeal them. But to do any of this requires new legislation — including a majority of both houses of Congress and a president’s signature.
Our system does not allow one party to delay, amend or repeal a law by shutting down the rest of the government until its demands are met. If that were the way our democracy worked, no law would ever be safe or settled.
So the president cannot renegotiate the ACA. And I don’t believe tea party Republicans expect him to.
Their real goal is far more insidious. They want to sow even greater cynicism about the capacity of government to do much of anything. The shutdown and possible default are only the most recent and dramatic instances of terminal gridlock, designed to get people like my friend to give up.
And on this score, they’re winning. The approval rating for Congress was already at an all-time low before the shutdown, according to a poll released just before Washington went dark. The CNN/ORC poll showed that only 10 percent of Americans approved the job Congress was doing, while 87 percent disapproved. It was the all-time lowest approval rating for Congress in a CNN poll.
It’s a vicious cycle. As average Americans give up on government, they pay less attention to what government does or fails to do — thereby making it easier for the moneyed interests to get whatever they want: tax cuts for themselves and their businesses; regulatory changes that help them but harm employees, consumers and small investors; special subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare. And these skewed benefits only serve to confirm the public’s cynicism.
The same cynicism also makes it easier to convince the public that even when the government does act for the benefit of the vast majority, it’s not really doing so. So a law like the ACA, which is still a step in the right direction, is transformed into a nightmarish “government takeover.”
So here’s what I told my friend who said he’s giving up on politics: Don’t.
If you believe the fix is in and the game is rigged, and that a handful of billionaires and their tea party puppets are destroying our government, do something about it. Rather than give up, get more involved. Become more active. Make a ruckus. It’s our government, and the most important thing you can do for yourself, your family, your community and the future is to make it work for all of us.
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