Ask Republicans about Democrats, or vice versa, and sooner or later you will hear: “They’re out of touch with the American people.”
That statement was part of the soundtrack on Capitol Hill over the first weekend of the shutdown, repeated so often that one ceases to hear it.
It’s an all-purpose way of condemning the hated “other” party. And it conveys the assumption that whoever is speaking is NOT out of touch with the American people.
What seems clear in the midst of all the murk surrounding the latest government breakdown is that both parties have lost touch with the American people – or at least with the vast swath that finds Washington incomprehensible.
In the partisan analysis, as repeated endlessly over the weekend, everything is always simple. The other guys are totally unreasonable; our people are utterly sensible and fair. All the blame on one side, zero on the other.
And, of course, both sides have the polls to prove it.
Take, for example, the issue of DACA, which is the proximate cause for the current shutdown. Congress has not resolved the future of President Obama’s program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The people in question, many now adults, came to the U.S. as children.
Democrats call them “American dreamers,” Republicans call them “illegal immigrants.” Democrats say they should be allowed legal status. Republicans say no, they are illegal and need to go – or their status should be part of a larger immigration overhaul that limits and controls future immigration.
Both sides say they have the American people with them as they struggle to end the government shutdown, and both are right – in a way.
Polls show at least three Americans in four agree the DACA population should have legal status to stay. But a clear majority of Americans also think it was not worth shutting the government down over DACA. That’s true too, and the shutdown is the issue of the moment, right?
Truth be told, neither party is ever in touch with all the American people, or even most of them. They are in touch with the people who voted for them or gave them money (or both) — or who are most likely to do so going forward.
They may say they hear America singing, but they are really only listening to their own section of the choir.
What both parties are also missing is this: Any individual American is also capable of holding views that seemingly conflict, and it is our individual right to do so.
It is the politicians’ job to recognize this and work out the conflicts and contradictions through compromise and accommodation. This is what the political culture of a democratic republic requires. It is also what most voters expect, whether they realize it or not.
We have a long shared history that teaches this, even if we temporarily lose sight of it. Abraham Lincoln referred to “the mystic chords of memory” and our national “bonds of affection.” (And it’s fair to say the Civil War president knew something of the forces that pull us apart.)
Of course, tapping into this deep impulse in the body politic requires both will and skill. The Lincolns among us are rare. It is far easier for politicians — for all of us — to click on our favorite website or cable news channel and bathe in warm affirmation.
No wonder our elected officials respond not to the complexities of the American mind but to the demands of their party’s most intense enthusiasts – including provocateurs and advocates in the media.
For Republicans, the dominant messages from these sources are increasingly resistant to immigration – especially to liberal immigration laws or the human results of liberal immigration policies of the past.
For Democrats, the dominant message comes from those who see the party’s future in the diversity of its new coalition. This would include the more recent arrivals themselves and those who remember the history of their own forebears.
Despite these stark distinctions, our leaders need to be in touch with Americans who agree with them and those who disagree with them – and those who do some of both. We all entertain conflicting impulses and ideas at times. And we all have a longing to unite, to subsume these differences and conflicts.
None of this is easy, but that is the leader’s task.
An anachronism? Let’s hope not. It’s what we all ultimately depend on, whether we realize it at every waking moment or not. In that sense, we are all idealists. Even dreamers.