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The Duty of the American Voter

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Nov 26, 2011

It has been a bad week in American politics. The Congressional supercommittee has failed to find the combination of spending cuts and revenue increases needed to hit the targets agreed to last summer in exchange for relaxing the debt limit. 

             There are some fundamental tasks governments must accomplish. One of those is that they must fund their activities. In very recent memory we have gone from being a nation routinely running deficits in the low hundreds of billions to one racking up nearly $2 trillion worth of debt annually. The perennial, low grade, nagging fiscal fever has spiked to 104 and shows no sign of breaking.
 
            Americans have the common sense necessary to perceive the threat of excessive red ink. The problem is that Congress lacks the consensus to fix the problem. The reason is the unique nature of American politics. We have a government purposefully designed not to run smoothly. That is a very good thing which has probably saved us from a great many mistakes. But it falls short when it comes to finding solutions quickly. When the English elect a government, it typically has up to six years to implement its vision largely unimpeded and then takes responsibility for the results. In America, our divided government faces a steep challenge when fundamental differences exist. And lines of accountability are less clear.   
 
            We are in that muddled situation now. Republicans (in control of the lower house) want to reduce spending and limit government ambition in order to tame the deficit. Democrats (with the presidency and the senate) want to raise taxes on the upper income brackets. Neither side is willing to budge. We have reached the point where differences are fundamental. 
 
            The good news is that our frequent elections provide the opportunity to remedy the difficulty. Americans acted in 2006 and 2008 to reverse course on the Bush administration and the Congress which supported it. In 2010, they again applied the brakes, but left the government with no operating consensus. Come 2012, we are going to need a government with a plan it can enact.
 
The competing philosophies are clear and are represented symbolically by the Occupy and Tea Party movements. More government or less. Redistribution versus a government which would prefer not to use taxation as the measure of equality. A government which is the primary driver of the nation’s activities versus one that simply exists to do a few basic things so the private sector can thrive. 
 
            Our next election will require an attentive and purposeful electorate. We will all need to make sure that we do not base our choices of president, senators, and representatives on the basis of marketing, image, tone, or any other superfluous category. Instead, each of us needs to determine where we truly believe the good of the country lies and to vote accordingly. 
 
Our trust in the political class has been damaged. They promised and did not deliver. But the failure only reinforces our responsibility as citizens. We dare not shirk our duty even though we may feel our politicians have forgotten theirs.

 This column originally appeared in the Nov. 25th edition of The Jackson Sun