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Dumbline Democracy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Something has changed in the last 30 years, so let’s praise outgoing New York Congressman Gary Ackerman, Democrat, for recognizing that change. We’re used to saying that politicians are out of touch. It’s refreshing to see one still cognizant of everyday reality.


But that’s as far as we can go. For Rep. Ackerman, in his exit interview with Josh Tyrangiel of Bloomberg Businesweek, didn’t just recognize the obvious. He espoused a theory about that change . . . and a more complacent, self-serving, self-justifying theory could hardly be imagined.

What’s changed is today’s political polarization, which has led to a lack of comity in Congress. Well, yes. We see less go-along/get-along today; partisanship has revved up, ideological disagreement, increased. “It used to be you had real friends on the other side of the aisle. It’s not like that anymore,” says Ackerman. “Society has changed.” I’m not at all certain this is a horrible development, but Ackerman assumes it is. But hey: Let’s agree to disagree on how bad the situation is. For a moment. What’s the cause?

Well, Ackerman’s “society has changed” line tips his hand to where he’s going with this:

I think the people have gotten dumber. I don’t know that I would’ve said that out loud pre-my announcement that I was going to be leaving. [Laughter] But I think that’s true.

Yes. Blame the people. They must have gotten dumber, because fewer and fewer people seem to respect the boffo job Ackerman’s been doing all these years.

There’s been a big shift in political opinion, and that’s the nose-on-your face-obvious reality underlying Ackerman’s complaint. In his early days in Washington, there was ideological disagreement, sure, but “the right” made deals with “the left” (which was, in a sense, merely the establishment — the real left wasn’t in power). The famous case was Ronald Reagan’s entente with Tip O’Neill: Reagan would get to spend oodles more on the military, and O’Neill could keep “social” spending levels up. Sure, the social spending growth rate tapered off a bit, but there was little actual “cutting.”


But here was the genius of the system: The slight cuts in growth rates allowed left-leaning Democrats to hysterically decry the cruelty of the “cuts” that Reagan was “imposing” — courtesy of the accounting tricks allowed by the post-Nixon Budget Control Act — despite the illusory nature of those cuts.

Republican politicians, meanwhile, could go home to boast of those “cuts.”

Meanwhile, deficits ballooned under Ronald Reagan, and Republican voters came to accept deficit financing (growth in debt) as a natural thing, almost good. With the ascension of George W. Bush to the presidency, and a post-Clintonian reaction giving majorities in both houses to Republicans, this trend solidified.

So, that was the congressional comity Ackerman fondly remembers. Democrats and Republicans amiably working together to increase spending, winking at each other as they called slight downward adjustments to the general upward trend cuts, and in general “playing” politics as a collegial romp in which pretense is trump.

Thankfully, that great comity expired with the bailouts. Increasing numbers of America’s independents, Republicans, and even more than a few leaning leftward, began to see that the word “unsustainable” applied to federal budgets. And to state and local budgets, for that matter, though these were somewhat constrained by lacking a money supply spigot. (What mayor wouldn’t want his own pet Bernanke to extend 0 percent credit to the mayoral budget?)


With this new recognition of reality in place, things have gotten a bit touchy, haven’t they? Ackerman compares today’s messy struggle with yesteryear’s Golden Age, and finds a culprit: media.

I mean everything has changed. The media has changed. We now give broadcast licenses to philosophies instead of people. People get confused and think there is no difference between news and entertainment. People who project themselves as journalists on television don’t know the first thing about journalism. They are just there stirring up a hockey game.

In the land with an allegedly “free press” he carelessly talks of “broadcast licenses,” and by a careful turn of phrase makes the honest confession of principles sound somehow dirty.

And then there’s the upbraiding of journalists’ alleged lack of professionalism. Journalism has always been a business filled with ideologues, pretenders, hacks and scoundrels. But during the Golden Age of Ackerman’s senescent dreams, the business consolidated, marshaled generally to a left-center drumbeat and then took a cue from The Wizard of Oz and got diplomas. Bad days came, however, when talk radio blossomed, the Web opened everything up and challenged the fat cats in the catbird seats of the newspapers, Rupert Murdoch allowed a distinct voice to appear on Cable and satellite, and . . . Ackerman witnessed End Times.

But really, the apocalypse of today’s media free-for-all merely reveals the End Times of a narrow range of opinion, and of the compromise deals that politicians prefer, post- New Deal: Always in the direction of more government.


Mainly, we can be thankful, it’s End Times for Ackerman and his ilk. It’s time to take seriously sustainability in government . . . at least something a bit more principled than “comity” amongst rogues.

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