It’s time for another check-in on Congress’s concern with government spending. Surely after the Congressional Budget Office’s March 2019 budget review reported the fiscal year 2019 budget deficit has grown by $94 billion compared to this time in 2018, Congress must be chomping at the bit to get its act together on a long-neglected public concern.
The news is galling, yet unsurprising. Last week, House Democrats deferred on releasing a budget blueprint despite their new House majority. In the process, they have shown how both parties only seem to care about debt and deficits when the issue helps them at the ballot box.
It may seem like a cynical read on the situation, but Democrats’ criticism of the GOP 2017 tax reform bill as fiscally irresponsible for relying on “borrowed money to fund a tax cut for the wealthy” smacks as much of opportunism as a fair critique of the bill. Indeed, progressive publications like ThinkProgress took the opportunity to ding Republicans on their well-earned fiscal hypocrisy when they held the House majority, but they are strategically silent on this latest move by House Democrats.
Sadly, there is enough opportunism to go around. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA),who oversaw passage of the staggering $1.3 trillion omnibus bill when he was in the majority just last year, took the opportunity to blast Democrats by paraphrasing Nancy Pelosi’s “show me your budget, show me your values” quip: “They have no budget. Does that mean they have no values?”
The empty rhetoric and finger-pointing can be recounted at length, but suffice to say that Pursuit’s Bryan Berky is correct to conclude that when push comes to shove, “nobody is going to remember who won the soundbites and what the poll numbers showed- we are going to look back and see how petty and irresponsible this era of lawmakers were.”
The question I am left with is why the logjam?
Blaming the other side for problems that all Americans have a stake in solving instead of actually trying to take thorny issues head-on seems to be one of the last true areas of shared interest for political leaders, and two university professors have found an interesting explanation for this paradigm.
Professor David Barker of American University and Professor Morgan Marietta of University of Massachusetts Lowell have arrived at a term that seems to capture what is afoot. According to their new book One Nation, Two Realities, both parties suffer from the “dueling facts phenomenon,” what they define as a “rhetorically powerful argument” that is not an argument at all. Instead, it is “a dismissal without grounds.”
Without delving too deep into the research, the important takeaway for this discussion is that dueling fact phenomena allow party leaders to escape scrutiny by appealing to partisan-tinged value sets, and “ordinary citizens will project their preferred values onto their perceived facts.”
In other words, if you are a Republican, you are more likely to view Democrats as the sole reckless spenders in Washington despite evidence that Republicans have been just as apathetic on the issue. If you are a Democrat, you are likely to see Republican hypocrisy on their one-time devotion to reducing government spending as an implicit justification to avoid the issue when you are in power. There are always outliers, but this broad trend helps both parties escape accountability on myriad public policy issues.
If you, like me, are wondering what the way out is — or if there even is a way out — Dr. Arthur Brooks offers a persuasive corrective. “Divisive, coercive political leaders,” according to Dr. Brooks’s research, “can be appealing during times of national despair, when voters want to change the status quo.’’ Juxtaposed to coercive leaders are “authoritative leaders,” leaders who act as “visionaries who set a course for an institution and inspire each member to take responsibility for getting to the final destination.”
Dr. Brooks argues that navigating the frustration of dueling fact phenomena and increased cynicism relies on looking to authoritative leaders “capable of building a shared moral consensus of pushing opportunity to those who need it the most and facilitating meaningful disagreement about how to achieve that shared aim.” It is a telling yet simple observation that these traits are lacking in our current political climate; we are desensitized to the idea that elections are easier won by divisive finger-pointing than debate and coalition-building with an eye toward actually addressing citizens’ concerns.
Inaction and bitterness thrive when citizens see politics as a simple matter of Team Red vs. Team Blue. Preserving a system of responsible governance for future generations of Americans depends on breaking the cycle of politicians only caring about issues when they are defined in opposition of their political rivals.
To do so, politicians and voters alike need to see past dueling facts. This change will need to be led by younger Americans who are exhausted by the cynicism in left-right politics and want to forge a brighter future for our country.