President Obama described the opposing sides in the abortion debate as having irreconcilable differences. As I watch California, New Jersey, and many other states struggle to manage their budgets, I wonder if there is also very little common ground when it comes to the debate about state services and funding. More importantly, it may be that the nation has become so polarized on several issues that the process of political deliberation cannot move the nation forward. Has compromise died in American politics?
One of my colleagues has notoriously claimed that it is better to have a benign dictatorship than a functioning democracy. My optimism has led me to resist accepting that premise. I believe there are ways to generate broad public consensus on almost every issue. I fear that too few elected officials are committed to finding that level of agreement in the Congress or the state legislatures. When voters choose to risk state bankruptcy to resist one-day furloughs for state workers or to encourage the release of felons, popular perspective on the fiscal needs of democracy has been lost. These events are the consequence of irresponsible calls to reject all taxation over the last forty-five years.
In Pakistan, the Army and the clergy are fighting for control of the country. The lack of strong civic institutions like a consistent judiciary, widespread public education, responsible banks, trustworthy legislators, and an insightful academy make the possibility of a failed state under Taliban rule a threat to global peace. In Philadelphia, reformer politicians propose to slash municipal services in one month, then expand income, property, and sales taxes in the next, before returning to plans for service reduction in the last few weeks. Murder, arson, and robbery continue to afflict the most vulnerable in the city and its suburbs.
We need to find common ground about local, state, and national politics in the United States. The achievement of transparent, accountable democracy with an array of functioning, national institutions provides the most succinct statement showing the inadequacy of Islamic fundamentalism. Supporters of the President and his agenda must take additional steps to make this achievement real. We must build the institutions — financial, educational, political, and cultural — we want to work in this world. We cannot afford the price of failed compromises and irreconcilable discourse.