What is it that Congress hath wrought with the debt limit deal? It apparently depends on to whom you are addressing the question. Liberals believe it’s the end of the world as we know it. Conservatives believe they’ve been snookered. And nobody knows what the president thinks because he’s irrelevant and no one has bothered to ask him.
In truth, we’ve been witnessing a rare moment in American history: a debate about the size, the role, and the nature of government itself. Of course, it’s been an extremely nebulous sort of debate. Nobody has taken out impossible-to-read flow charts and tried to explain how the federal government actually works. Nor have we heard much quoting of Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, or Burke. Americans debate difficult issues by not debating them at all. We talk about something else, and pretend we’re discussing the real issue. While this has the effect of keeping the country from flying apart at the seams, it does nothing to advance the vitally important debates that define us as a nation and a people.
Consider the issue of slavery. We managed not to talk about it for 80 years, preferring instead to nibble around at the edges of it by arguing over where it should be allowed or banned. Only the abolitionists were willing to confront the issue and they were considered “extremists” by the Democrats of the day. If Lincoln had not been elected, it is very possible that we would have continued to tolerate slavery for decades, patching together compromise after compromise, kicking the can down the road for another generation to deal with.
So, too, the matter of equal rights. The “debate” over civil rights tore the Democratic Party asunder in 1964 when, instead of the Democratic convention talking about the Voting Rights Act, or civil rights, they talked about credentials. The all white, regular Mississippi Democrats were being challenged for seating on the convention floor by the “Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,” who were made up of both blacks and whites. The regular Democrats had systematically excluded blacks by denying them the right to vote in the Democratic primary.
In the end, a perfectly American compromise was hammered out when two of the Freedom Democrats were granted alternate status while the rest of their party were designated as “invited guests” and seated on the floor. Most importantly, no future Mississippi delegation would be seated unless they adhered to the rules governing the choosing of delegates.
Further, we still don’t talk about race in America in any meaningful way. It is impossible when one side believes that it has a corner on morality and that any deviation from their treasured definitions of the issues surrounding race is tantamount to racism. When winning the argument is more important than fleshing out the points of contention that divide us, regular conversation is useless.
So it’s not surprising that the debate over the size, scope, and purview of government would take the form of a discussion about taxes and spending. It is much less convulsive to the body politic than arguing over far more difficult concepts like what the Constitution means, what should government’s role be in a 21st-century, industrialized, continental democracy of 300 million people, or real questions of liberty and tyranny upon which our future as a free nation hangs.