There’s a malady spreading among political professionals I know. It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle they’re on, symptoms are identical: occasional hopelessness, numbing of the soul and profound bouts of career regret.
Some long-term political reporters I speak with have it, too. So do many legislators.
If this thing were a cough or a sneeze, I’d call it “same-old-same-old syndrome” or maybe “so-so syndrome” for economy. But “so-so” doesn’t capture its depth or effects, which approximate, I imagine, what happens to someone when he stares into the abyss for a moment too long. Think Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
The voters well know the spectacle: Two political parties slugging it out day after day, year after year, over the same issues. It was enjoyable enough when it seemed that one side — yours even — might “win” one day. But the advent of deep-pocketed professional political advocacy groups ended that presupposition for those watching closely enough. The point of being in Congress isn’t winning anymore, it’s fighting. Perpetually.
Slugfests are the lifeblood of politics. They rile voters, bring in money and maintain majorities. Detente? An almost laughable notion now. What does political harmony do for individuals and entities that constantly need to raise money and ire to survive? Why pass the bill this year when lobbying groups will pony up for a decade?
Meanwhile, Social Security and Medicaid face insolvency, public infrastructure crumbles and federal debt marches toward $22 trillion and beyond.
Above this din, or perhaps beneath it, and proving that necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention, two hopeful terms are popping up: federalism and localism. These ideological cousins call for a paradigm shift in America where solutions to everyday problems are sought as close to home as possible, rather than in Washington or at statehouses.
The New York Times recently published an excellent opinion piece on this titled “Can Localism Restore Sanity to U.S. Politics?” Here’s some of what author Gracy Olmstead wrote of her Idaho hometown:
“Our mayor is liberal. He drives around town with an Obama ’08 bumper sticker on his car. I am a conservative, pro-life Christian; in 2016, I voted for Evan McMullin for president. But our partisan political differences mean nothing when it comes to caring for this town and making it better. Here at the local level, our interests intertwine: They are practical, achievable, even apolitical.”
The Brookings Institution published a similar piece called, “Is Constitutional Localism the answer to what ails American democracy?” Its authors write, “We call for a new civic ethos or governing framework which we call Constitutional Localism, that will shift the greatest number of public decisions possible to the community level — albeit within a clear constitutional framework to protect the individual freedoms and rights won over the past 250 years.”
Federalist organizations are growing, too, including the nascent Federalist Party of America, for which I’m serving as chairman pro tem. The FPA seeks to strengthen communities “by restoring the balance and limits of government in America,” its website states. More and more in the age of Donald Trump, liberal states and municipalities are opening up to federalist principles that only conservatives once pushed.
The American Millennium Society, a Philadelphia think tank, is developing a long-range “New American Agenda” based on local solutions in urban areas. It’s no coincidence that these movements are happening at the same time.
Six words keep running through my mind in my day job. They are: “This conversation has run its course.” And it has.
A new one might be on the horizon. I hope so for the sake of my daughters.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.