This semester I’m teaching a really fun course: Foundations of the Christian Intellectual Tradition. Last week we began a two-week-long segment on Greek tragedy.
“What makes a tragedy tragic?” I asked. I have a group of really sharp freshman, and they opined about this or that movie, this or that play, and they quickly observed that tragedy is not really or even primarily about bad things happening. Horror films may traumatize. Good guys may suffer unjustly. But tragedy seems different. It focuses on inevitable but unnecessary suffering. One student summed up the discussion: “It’s kinda like watching a car wreck. You want to turn away, but you can’t help watching.”
After class I learned that the House of Representatives had failed to pass the bill to finance a massive intervention into the deteriorating credit markets. I was dumbfounded. Could Sophocles or Aeschylus have invented a more tragic scene? Like the prophetess Cassandra, who knew the ancient crimes that dwelt within the house of Agamemnon, and who could see their bloody, disastrous consequences, I felt as though I were watching a political car wreck in Washington.
The most dramatic and disturbing fact about the crisis was undoubtedly the lack of functional leadershipor, at least, the lack of a leadership that could give us anything that resembled a solution. Yes, Henry Paulson rang the tocsin and formulated a bold if flawed plan. Yes, President Bush urged Congress to take action. Yes, the budget and finance heavyweights in Congress worked hard over the weekend to negotiate a bill that had a chance of passing. Yes, majority leader Nancy Pelosi and minority leader John Boehner tried to rally votes. But the vote was taken and the result was plain: They failed.
It’s easy to imagine that Bush or Pelosi or Paulson were the problem. I don’t doubt that they’re flawed in their own ways. But there’s a more significant source of their failure. The financial crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time. We’re only a month from a national election, and the agonizing drama of our political leaders incapable of rallying action last Monday, and then scrambling all week long to find a way forward, has a deeper source. We were collectively experiencing the bad consequences of something that the Founders feared: too much democracy.
The men and women of the House of Representatives will face their constituents in November. Not surprisingly, therefore, the usual cajoling and enticements had little effect. Promises of legislative goodiessay, a bridge or a highway or a sub-committee chairand the threat of punishment by withholding these goodies usually carry the day. But ordinary (and necessary) legislative log-rolling doesn’t work well when voters are agitatedand are able to cast ballots to throw you out in November because you supported “a Wall Street bailout.”
Moreover, the party leaders, the pundits, the media, and the voters themselves are worked up into a lather about the upcoming presidential election. For the last few years there has been a mounting frenzy as Democrats have gained the upper hand. They smell blood in the water, and Republicans are eager to find any issue with which to regroup and survive.
As a result of the inevitable pressures of the election season, the major players in Washington naturally find it very difficult to shift gears and drop the rhetorical attacks and counter-attacks. Nancy Pelosi didn’t help the success of the bill she supported when she launched into stump-speech mode and denounced “the Bush administration’s failed economic policies.” It’s hard to get bi-partisan support with slashing campaign slogans. And even if the major players set aside their immediate party interests, nobody trusts or believes them. Witness John McCain’s ill-fated efforts. In the mad dash to Election Day, non-partisanship is invariably seen as just another partisan posture adopted to hammer the opposition for being partisan. At this point in the election cycle, the snake ends up swallowing its tail.
And it’s not just the politicians. Only Rip Van Winkle wouldn’t know that the media is fully engaged in the partisan rumble. The most obvious reason is because hype sells. “Two men shot late this evening. Killer on the loose” sounds pretty much like “Wall Street bailout proposed. $700 million on taxpayers’ tab.” Moreover, reporters are like all of us: full of envy, resentment, and wooly-headed ideas about economics. Thus we’ve had endless empty and false rhetoric about Main Street versus Wall Street, calculations about how much the Paulson plan will “cost” each American household, interviews with the proverbial man-on-the-street, and all the other bread-and-circus inanities of our scandal-a-day news industry.
So, as we look back on the high drama of last week, we can be forgiven for thinking that the gods were against us. We faced (and continue to face) a hard-to-understand crisis in credit markets that is gaining momentum in the month leading up to a presidential electionan election that campaign slogans and punditry and media sound bites have raised to the level of a symbolic referendum on the future of our country. Sigh.
It’s very important to recognize, however, that the architects of the American Constitution anticipated our political paralysis. They were anxious about the dangers of too much democracy, and they designed a system of staggered elections, two very different legislative chambers, and a separation of powers in order to insulate decision making from the passing whims, intense prejudices, and blind self-interest of the majority. It’s a system to which we have added the practice of substantive judicial review, an independent civil service, and other non-democratic practices, all designed to save democracy from itself.
We can argue the details, but the basic impulse is surely wise. The hurly-burly of democracy, however necessary for the accountability of government, can sometimes drive us off the road. We are living through a real-life illustration. It is transparently the case that the unique political timing of this crisis has led us to the point where uninformed voters animated by simple-minded slogans are exercising a potentially disastrous influence over their representatives. The election season is democracy in its most powerful form, which is not necessarily its best form.
The political car wreck was averted. Not surprisingly, the bill that was signed by President Bush on Friday was hammered out in the Senate. It is the legislative chamber that the Constitution insulates from voters with long, six-year terms, ensuring that only one third of the Senate must face the voters on Election Day. In fact, the Senate is even further from voters, and again by design, because each state elects two, regardless of population.
Anybody who has had fantasies about the unalloyed virtues of “the will of the people” should be grateful that the Constitution has frustratingly undemocratic aspects. God knows that if our system had allowed the voters to decide, we would have been doomed to a long, dark night of economic distress. Any economy that has progressed beyond the stage of feudalism and bartering depends upon those who profit from the management of capital in order to grease the skids of commerce. Right now, our ordinary mechanisms for directing the flow of capital have seized. Without a well-functioning financial system, factories, restaurants, stores, technology firms, and all the other players in our extraordinary, complex, and productive economy begin to feel the increase in friction. And things slow down when friction increases. A prolonged financial crisis invariably leads to economic crisis.
The thought of a deep recession pains me to contemplate. It’s not the case that furloughed Wall Street bankers or CEOs who may be compelled to forgo bonuses will suffer the most. In economic downturns, the middle class gets blindsided. Their jobs are more likely to disappear. Their retirement accounts tank, and suddenly selling the house and buying a condo in Phoenix is out of reach. But it’s invariably the folks at the bottom who really get trampled, because they live with no savings, no home equity, no margin of safety.
Perhaps we have the ability, through monetary policy, to decouple Wall Street from Main Street. I doubt this is so, or more accurately, I think the only alternative to Wall Street is K Street, which would destroy our economy and our democracy. But at present let’s put such thoughts aside. It is a simple fact that they are linked, and the end result of the strange illusion that Main Street can ignore the present crisis on Wall Streetan illusion that still commands a wide majority among voters and continues to be encouraged by those who wish to pander to our collective complacencywill be to squeeze further the folks who are already hurting: the people who rent shabby apartments around the other side of town rather than live in houses on Main Street.
Yes, last week we saw potential for real harm to real people caused by too much democracy. The actual effect of our present collective fixation on making sure that the market punishes the gamblers who brought us the sub-prime messa sentiment that unites the free-market ideologues on the right and the anti-market ideologues on the leftis punishing economic circumstances for all of us, and especially the poor.
Against the self-serving self-deceptions of most Americans, I hope that the ability of our political leaders (narrowly) to avoid a political car wreck is followed up by an effective use of the $700 billion to avoid the economic wreck that continues to be a real possibility. You and I are not just watching. We’re all in the car.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.