The Myth of Washington Gridlock

Published June 3, 2015

The Catholic Difference

“Gridlock” along the Potomac—the difficulties the Congress has in getting things done, the difficulties the Congress and the White House have in cooperating to get things done, or both—is regularly deplored by pols, pundits, and citizens alike. My contrarian view is that this kind of “gridlock” can serve useful public purposes, acting as a brake on passions and a gauge of the nation’s moral health.

As George Will has long insisted, “gridlock”—in the sense of making it difficult to get legislation passed—is built into the American system. The Framers of the Constitution saw fit to establish three branches of government and a Congress with two houses; they also required congressional supermajorities for certain grave matters, like ratifying treaties, convicting impeached officials, or sending constitutional amendments to the states. And that is a prescription for something resembling “gridlock.”

Thus my friend Will’s theory of gridlock-as-accomplishment in the arts of governance parallels manager Jimmy Dugan’s lecture on baseball in A League of Their Own: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it weren’t hard, everyone would do it. The ‘hard’ is what makes it great.” The Framers made legislating hard because they didn’t trust transient passions in politics or bullying majorities. Good for them.

Today’s gridlock on the Potomac has a further cause, however, and it’s cultural rather than structural.

As recently as the early 1960s, policy arguments in America unfolded in the context of an intact public culture, itself a byproduct of what were thought (in those innocent days) to be obvious moral truths. Today, American public culture is plastic, liquid, susceptible to change—and those once-thought-obvious moral truths are regarded by a significant number of Americans as fictions that can be denied without serious personal or public consequence.

The harbinger of this, as of so many other distempers in American public life, was the Supreme Court’s 1973 doubleheader, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which obliterated the abortion laws of all fifty states and invented a constitutional “right” to abortion on demand throughout a pregnancy. Pro-abortion advocates declared victory; pro-life advocates refused to truckle; and the issue the Supreme Court thought settled (and so declared in another decision in 1992) continues to be, today, the most sharply contested issue in our public life.

Why? Because the debate over the right-to-life of the unborn, like the debate over who-can-marry-whom and the debate over the breadth of religious freedom, are contestations rooted in dramatically different conceptions of the nature of the human person—and thus of the obligations of the state. In that critical sense, American political gridlock today is anthropological as well as structural. On one side of the gridlock are those who believe there are deep truths inscribed in the human person, truths that no just state can ignore or deny. On the other side of the gridlock are those who believe there is no such thing as “human nature”; that the very idea of “human nature” has been constructed by powerful forces as a means of control and subordination; that “tolerance” requires the given-human-nature people to welcome whatever the no-human-nature people decide is “their truth”; and that, if the given-human-nature people decline to offer that welcome, they must be legally coerced into doing so by the state.

Thus arguments for opting out of what is sometimes called the American “culture war” are like whistling down the wind. The culture war—these clashing visions of human nature, which involves competing concepts of human happiness—has split the United States, and that division is not likely to be bridged anytime soon.

Still, those upholding the biblical view of the human person ought to borrow a note from the first Catholic candidate for president of the United States, Al Smith, and be happy culture warriors, reflecting the joy of the Gospel and remembering everyone’s need for the medicine of the divine mercy.

For the resolution of the American culture war over the nature of the human person will not, in the final analysis, be a matter of politics. It will be a matter of conversion.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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