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The Minnesota shutdown, the NBA and the death of compromise

at 01:39 PM ET, 07/01/2011


A bicyclist rides on the road leading out of the closed Fort Snelling historic site Friday, July 1, 2011 in Minneapolis after negotiations over the state budget between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton broke down and the government shutdown at midnight. AP Photo/Jim Mone)
As of 12:01 this morning, the Minnesota government shut down with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislators unable to find common ground on a budget.

The Minnesota morass comes amid a broader national fight over budget priorities with President Obama and Congressional Republicans both ramping up the rhetoric this week even as the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt limit draws ever closer.

And, it’s not just in politics where the “take my ball and go home” mentality is pervasive these days. The National Football League has been in lockout mode for months and on Thursday the National Basketball Association locked its players out too.

While lockouts, strikes and shutdowns — in politics and sports — are nothing new, this spate of recent developments suggest that something in our culture is changing. In short, compromise has become a bad word. Grand bargains are no longer seen as grand. Lonely stands — whether principled or political — are prized.

“There is a fundamental lack of willingness and ability to compromise,” said Howard Wolfson, a longtime Democratic political operative and now the deputy mayor of New York City. “There are too many silos and not enough common ground.”

Wolfson’s opinion is broadly shared among the professional political class of both parties although the reasons for the decline of compromise vary.

Doug Sosnik, a former senior aide in the Clinton White House and consultant to the NBA, blames the economic upheaval of recent years for the current anemic state of the compromise culture.

“We have gone through massive economic change in this country due to the near depression at the end of the last decade and it has impacted all aspects of our society,” said Sosnik.

With people feeling anxious about their own economic future, the natural human tendency is to protect what is yours — not make the sort of shared sacrifice that is required to, for example, pay down the national debt or keep state governments running.

Wolfson, for his part, attributes the death — or at least illness — of compromise to the rise of the Internet and niche political media targeted at appealing to people of specific partisan persuasions; that silo-ing “result[s] in a lack of shared facts, much less shared opinions.”

Wolfson’s argument — that you can go through an entire day and read, watch and listen only to people who affirm your opinions on the political news of the day — is that the silo-ing of media consumption tends to harden partisan differences. In the political world we now live, someone who disagrees with you isn’t just wrong, he or she is bad — or at least carries some malicious intent.

Regardless of the reason for the growing divide, it’s clear from recent elections that purity is the name of the game for many voters.

In the 2010 election, Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, a generally conservative member of Congress, was ousted by the tea party element of the GOP who felt he had strayed too far from orthodoxy.

Ditto Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski who fell to a tea party primary challenge but managed to win as a write-in candidate in the general election.

Given those results, it’s perhaps not surprising that the first big post-election legislative showdown — over whether or not to extend the tax cuts put in place by President George W. Bush — devolved into an extended staring match between the White House and the newly ascendant Republican party in Washington.

In a Gallup poll conducted during that tax fight, a majority (51 percent) of Republicans said they preferred that their Members of Congress “hold out for the basic budget plan they want, even if that means the government shuts down”. Just 27 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of independents held that same view in the survey.

A deal was finally struck. But it was a deal that left the left deeply unhappy — with many liberals arguing that Obama had sacrificed on key principles.

In fact, the defining moment of the tax deal for Democrats nationally was not the bargain President Obama struck but the filibuster that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) launched to protest the deal.

Then in April, the White House and Republicans waited until the eleventh hour — literally — to cut a deal on a 2011 budget to avoid a government shutdowns as both sides held out for plums to their base.

“Both in politics and sports, the players are playing to their base versus the broad middle,” said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster and partner in Garin-Hart-Yang Research.

That sentiment bodes poorly for the fast-approaching debt ceiling deadline, which is starting to look more and more like an immoveable force meeting an inanimate object.

Something — in Minnesota, in the debt fight, with the NBA and NFL — has to give. But what? And when? And what will the long term impact on the nature of compromise in the country be?

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