Relax, America – we’ve been here before

With all eyes in Washington focused on the government shutdown and possible default, policymakers and pundits may have missed what’s potentially the most consequential story of late – a Washington Post piece that catalogues the growing backlash against Tea Party Republicans in districts across the country.

In West Michigan, business leaders are recruiting a primary challenger to the young, Tea Party-aligned House Rep. Justin Amash. Similar efforts against Tea Party-aligned or otherwise recalcitrant Republican House members are underway elsewhere in Michigan, in Tennessee, and in North Carolina.

The intra-GOP maneuvering offers a reassuring reminder that U.S. politics ebbs and flows around the political center rather than moving inexorably toward one extreme or the other, and that Americans are overwhelmingly problem solvers rather than crusaders, incrementalists rather than revolutionaries.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The shutdown is an embarrassing monument to governmental ineptitude, a reflection of politics as a temper tantrum, an ugly spectacle that’s beneath the dignity of even our often undignified politics. The potential for a first-ever U.S. default is less undignified than frightening, for the immediate catastrophe and long-term national decline that it could generate.

But, let’s put our current travails in some perspective.

For starters, have you heard that our politics has never been more bitter, our public discourse never more shallow, and our governmental challenges never bigger? That’s nonsense – on all fronts.

Today’s bitterness between Democrats and Republicans pales in comparison to that between the parties of the pre-Civil War period, when a House member caned a Senator nearly to death over the issue of slavery. Our discourse seems refined compared to just after World War II, when Republicans routinely labeled the New Deal “communist” and, while running for re-election, President Truman compared Republican candidate Thomas Dewey to Adolf Hitler.

As for our challenges, yes, they’re big. We’re still recovering from a deep recession and financial crisis, and we face threats from a rising China, resurgent Russia, nuclear-seeking Iran, and metastasizing terrorist networks. But, those challenges hardly seem to compare to George Washington’s in leading a rag-tag army to victory against the mighty British, or Lincoln’s in maintaining the union, or Truman’s in rescuing Europe, confronting the Soviets, and creating a new U.S. foreign policy to lead the free world.

For more than two centuries, American politics has witnessed alternating periods of political bitterness and collegiality, public shallowness and inspiration, governmental gridlock and achievement. At some point, today’s bitterness will lose steam, giving way to more inter-party collaboration.

Have you heard that President Obama is turning the United States into a socialist paradise? Or that arch-conservatives in the House will gather the forces to undo the Great Society and New Deal? More nonsense.

What’s remarkable about American politics, particularly in recent decades, is not the swings between far left and far right but, instead, its essential centrism. Since the early 1950s, federal spending has hovered between 17 and 23 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) while receipts have hovered between 16 and 20 percent. That hardly presages a radical turn to much bigger or much smaller government.

Americans may rail against “big government,” but they also strongly support the dominating features of government (Social Security, Medicare, and a strong defense) as well as the bulk of other federal activities (food stamps and aid to education, science and space, border security and food inspection, and so on).

Moreover, voters punish politicians who mistakenly think they have a mandate to enact big change. They punished President Clinton for his policy over-reach by giving Republicans control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years; they punished Republicans for shutting down the government in 1995-96 by re-electing Clinton; and they punished Obama in 2010 for what they viewed as excessive spending by giving Republicans control of the House and more seats in the Senate.

Finally, have you heard that America’s politics is irretrievably broken, and that our leaders can’t get anything done?

It’s an old complaint and, at times like these, it seems to have some merit. But, Americans have limited patience for gridlock and, after some time, they demand action and the politicians respond.

It was, perhaps most notably, in 1996 – just months after the government shutdown – that Clinton and congressional Republicans collaborated on high-profile achievements that included welfare reform, immigration reform, and telecommunications reform.

So, relax everyone.

Whether in the aftermath of Civil War or McCarthyism, “come home America” McGovern-ism or wacky Tea Party-ism, Americans always return to the sensible centre. They will surely do so again.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”