What words best describe present-day Washington politics? The commonplace answer, endlessly repeated by politicians themselves and media observers alike, is this: dysfunction, gridlock, partisanship and incivility. Yet here’s a far more accurate term: tacit consensus.
Bill Moyers Moyers & Company February 21, 2014
Where Republicans and Democrats disagree, however loudly, matters less than where their views align. Differences entertain. Yet like-mindedness, even if unacknowledged, determines both action and inaction. In the ‘Bill-W.-Obama’ era, a neoliberal consensus defines American politics. In his classic text, The American Political Tradition, the historian Richard Hofstadter identified the parameters of that consensus. It emphasizes, he wrote, “the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, [and] the value of competition.” It assumes “the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion … into a beneficent social order.” Grab and get ultimately works for the larger benefit of all. That, at least, is the idea.
President Barack Obama, center, speaks as former Presidents Bill Clinton, left, and George W. Bush, right, listen in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington in 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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Are the troops in Afghanistan fighting for our freedom? If so, the package of things they fight for includes the prerogative of dispatching US forces to wherever it pleases Washington to send them, along with no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, gay marriage, and an economic system that manifestly privileges the interests of the affluent at the expense of those hard-pressed to make ends meet. To pretend otherwise, indulging in some sanitized or cliché-laced definition of freedom, is to engage in willful self-deception.Watch: Andrew Bacevich on Changing Our Military Mindset
To imply that all Americans subscribe to this neoliberal consensus would be misleading, of course. A loosely-organized antiwar movement objects, however ineffectually, to Washington’s penchant for military adventurism. Moral traditionalists protest against the casting off of social conventions, again without discernible impact on policy. Risking the charge of engaging in class warfare, groups such as the Occupy Wall Street movement raise a ruckus about the yawning gap between the rich and everyone else. Again, the effects of their efforts appear negligible.
As far as their practical impact is concerned, these dissenters might as well be locked in a soundproof booth. They shout, but are not heard. Hofstadter had anticipated their predicament. “The range of ideas … which practical politicians can conveniently believe in,” he observed, “is normally limited by the climate of opinion that sustains their culture.”
Here we come to the heart of the matter: the climate of opinion. Only politicians who possess an aptitude for interpreting the prevailing climate will succeed in gaining and holding high office. In the political sphere, ideas at variance with that climate are by definition inconvenient. Expedience dictates that they should be ignored.
Whether the precepts informing basic US policy today actually work as advertised – whether the neoliberal consensus keeps us safe, liberates us from archaic and repressive attitudes, and creates conditions conducive to broad prosperity or whether they foster needless wars, moral confusion, and social injustice is an interesting question. That the question deserves more attention than it presently receives is undoubtedly the case. What cannot be argued, however, is that those precepts depart in any significant way from what the prevailing climate of opinion demands.