On Politics and Congress

Anyone who’s known me over the past few years will know that, generally speaking, I avoid commenting on current politics.  Anymore, it seems we’re just going from one knee-jerk reaction to the next knee-jerk reaction without the benefit of any real discourse.  To say that this is a sad state of affairs is understating the case in leaps and bounds.  We can argue all day long about the who, the what, the where, and more importantly, the why all day long.

I bring this up because SCOTUS’s decision on Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act triggered just such a knee-jerk reaction from my cousin (mirrored with the dozens I’ve seen pasted across Twitter) that Civil Rights is now set back 50 years.  Having the benefit of actually reading nearly half a dozen articles (from both “liberal” and “conservative” leaning sites), I chose to engage him with my opinion that I don’t believe that it’s quite the “death knell” everyone portrays it to be.  While it’s certainly disconcerting and does “open the door” to future possible discrimination, what the ruling does is invalidate Section 4 only.  Section 4 creates the scenario that makes certain jurisdiction (states and a few counties) subject to federal oversight of election process changes.  Section 5 actually enforces the oversight, but Section 4 creates the conditions to qualify for additional oversight.

While it’s true that the conditions laid out in Section 4 basically make Section 5 a moot point right now, that’s not to say that it goes away entirely.  SCOTUS has basically said “Congress, you should use more relevant data than something from 40 years ago.”  Makes sense to me, right?

Then people go on to say “well, Congress isn’t getting anything done” – there’s a certain measure of truth there.  But I made the comment to him (and he has yet to respond) that this is such an “under the radar topic” that Congress might just surprise us.  Believe it or not, Congress does actually accomplish things.  It’s just not on the “tentpole” issues that are major headlines to news outlets.  Those are the issues where we see the “partisanship bickering” because Congress actually has to campaign on their visible record.  It’s easy to tell your constituents “I voted against (or for) immigration reform, while my opponent is against my stance.”  It’s not so easy to do on “lower profile” issues or where you might actually agree with something.  

Which brings me to the next point – why are we so divided?  I’ve seen articles that attribute it to the fact that Congress now has to spend more time in their districts and less time in Washington, Social Media, etc.  But I don’t think that anyone’s truly addressed all of these things at once.  I think where it really comes down is that twenty or thirty years ago, before (widespread) Cable TV, there was a more limited space in which to convey the news of the day.  Most people got their basic coverage from a newspaper, maybe local radio/TV broadcast news.  Both of these limited the amount of coverage available to the average person.  There’s only so much “news” that you can cover in a 30 minute block or so many pages of the local paper.  If you wanted extended coverage, you subscribed to the more focused publications.

Along the way, we got dedicated channels strictly to news (and let’s face it, “news” includes commentary and opinions these days) – first on Cable, then when the internet comes along, dedicated sites to a specific viewpoint.  Social Media and the “140-character” myth really only serve to perpetuate the news cycle and shortening your viewpoint to the most-attention grabbing thing possible.  It’s a cycle that feeds on itself that we’ve now reached the point where it’s a simple knee-jerk reaction and we’re off fighting like cats and dogs.

The over-abundance of information should actually be a boon to political discourse.  But instead, the business model perpetuates that we have X number of visitors, X number of repeat visitors, X time spent on page or tuned in, etc.  I spent the better part of an hour this morning reading several different articles plus a good chunk of both the ruling and dissenting opinion of the court.  I did my research *before* posting an opinion.  I look back over my Twitter timeline and see that within 10 minutes of the court’s decision, there’s all sort of “outrage” or “vindication”.  10 minutes!  It took me 30 minutes just to make it through the main opinion and the first few paragraphs of the dissent!

I’ll be generous and give some of these folks the doubt that they may have been more invested in this prior to my reading this morning.  But the fact is, no one knew which way the court could go.  The VRA hasn’t been struck down, only the formula for determining who needs extra review.  And it’s not like it can’t be put back in action by Congress.

But I’ve deviated from the original point I was trying to talk about – which was whether or not Congress would do anything.  I think we’re so down on them for the major issues that we forget the country still runs, there are still laws being passed.  Just because it’s not “headline” news doesn’t mean they don’t do any work.  The problem is that we’ve identified these major issues of contention as “foundations” of the country and by extension they speak to the very ideals of what we believe the government should or shouldn’t do.  And that resonates to the very core of who we are, politically, as a people.

I honestly believe that the founding fathers (yes “fathers”, not “founders” as the White House now claims) meant for Congress to disagree on the major points, knowing there would be common ground found either on that issue or something else.  Without fully understanding the history behind every Congress, I’d be willing to bet that this was similar 220 years ago as it is today.  There was just less coverage.  The movie Lincoln would have you believe the vote to abolish slavery was more contentious than what likely played out almost 140 years ago, but it still remains – there was a side for, and a side against, and it was a hot topic for quite a few people in the country.  But even the filmmakers have admitted to taking creative license with the events.

Without argument, there is no compromise.  Without compromise, there is no forwards (or backwards).  But you can’t expect to achieve compromise if you don’t understand both your argument and the guy (or gal) across the table from you.  Assume all you want, but we know the old adage.  And I think that’s where we’ve gone wrong.

We assume that we know everything there is now.  Surely with so much information out there, we are all informed, right?  Doubtful.  If I can spend an hour showing someone that it’s not likely as bad as they think it is just by doing the research (and arguing logically to those facts), anyone can.  It just takes time.

And therein lies the true heart of the problem – there’s never enough of it.