Another devastating editorial from David Brooks in the Times, “Sin and Taxes,” deciphering some of the factors underlying America’s current legislative gridlock. I’m always struck by the apparent necessity of scapegoat rhetoric on both sides of the aisle, and the obvious superficiality, not to mention self-righteousness of it all. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, is it just me or is it becoming more and more difficult to escape the (absurd) vilification of public figures these days? I suppose it can be as entertaining as it is naive/lazy… Sigh. Whatever the case:

For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character). 

This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness. 

The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity. This leader pushes his troops in lock step before the voracious foe. Each party has its own version of whom the evil elites are, but both feel they’ve more to fear from their enemies than from their own sinfulness. 

Compromise is thus impossible. Money matters should be negotiable, but how can one compromise with opponents who are the source of all corruption?