The “fiscal cliff,” by now the most recognizable metaphor in America politics, symbolizes the current spate of troubles that plague Congress and account for its single-digit approval rating. Citizens on both sides of the aisle, including prominent scholars, are increasingly driven to describing our system as “broken.”

It is difficult to puzzle out this sad state of affairs, and to explain, exactly, why our nation’s elected representatives have brought us to the precipice, but any serious explanation for this complex situation surely will include the afflictions of ideological extremism and careerism that have come to characterize Congress. Some members suffer from both curses; others by just one. They may be related to one another, but don’t necessarily share a kinship. In either case, the results spell trouble for America.

The problem of extremism and zealotry are hardly new political fashions, though many observers trace growing intolerance and a reluctance to compromise to the mid-1990s, when leading members of both parties of Congress expressed their frustration and despair and sought refuge from the arrogance of political certitude in retirement. The late Senator James McClure, an iconic figure for Idaho’s Republicans, explained to me a few years ago that he retired from the Senate because ideological extremism had gripped the Senate and made compromise all but impossible. Though deeply conservative, McClure exhibited a pragmatic ability to seek compromise on the premise that half a loaf was better than none. Too few of his colleagues shared his values and he returned to the Gem State.

Former Senator, Alan Simpson (R-Wyo), a justly celebrated retired politician for his commitment to compromise as a means of avoiding the fiscal cliff, as reflected in his co-authorship of Simpson-Bowles, tells the same story. His lament that congressional colleagues were committed to their ideological principles rather than finding common policy grounds that would generate some progress on the challenges confronting our country, compelled his to return to Wyoming.

The Senate, once described as the world’s greatest deliberative assembly, has yielded the floor to ideological extremism and partisanship.

The fiscal cliff is attributable as well, to the problem of careerism. For many years, it has been common for academics in universities to teach that many, though not all, members of Congress are primarily interested in re-election. It follows, as a simple calculus, that those members will assume policy positions, cast votes and engage in activities that will serve their career interests, and avoid those activities that will endanger their return to Washington. This path may lead to longevity in Washington but offers nothing in the way of leadership.

As we turn the calendar to a new year, it is incumbent upon the citizenry to ask itself: What are the remedies for our dilemma?

Share:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on TumblrBuffer this pageEmail this to someonePrint this page

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Amanda

    Great article. I agree wholeheartedly that extremism has become an increasingly obstructive force. I think that Congress is going to have a hard time justifying its childish actions and squabbles over cliff negotiations. They looked like a bunch of toddlers pulling each others hair and pointing fingers. Is there even such a thing as a true statesman anymore?

  • melissa

    Thank you for this rational plea to return to the business of governance. When did compromise become a sign of weakness? I do wonder if this is but one of the unintended consequences of feeding partisan 24/7 news channels. Sound bytes are created for ratings; not for reasonable deliberation over tough decisions.