Consensus in the U.S. government is almost impossible to obtain because whatever one party supports, the other routinely opposes. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo
Alliteration is ideal for literature. Is it instructive for politics? Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin observed that there are contradictions, comrade. Indeed. Today, crippling contradictions are joined by diabolical dilemmas and perilous paradoxes.
In the United States, a primary cause of this terrifying trio is the huge and seemingly irreversible divide between the two political parties, making government increasingly ungovernable. Consensus is almost impossible to obtain because whatever one party supports, the other routinely opposes. And opposition is intensified by the nearly ubiquitous distrust Americans have developed for public and private institutions.
America’s debt and debt ceiling are textbook examples. On one hand, increasing the $31.4 trillion debt is fiscally unsustainable given the magnitude of interest payments. On the other hand, neither political party is prepared to support necessary cuts in defense and domestic programs to balance the budget. These contradictions, dilemmas and paradoxes cannot or may not be resolved.
The First Amendment, likewise, is held hostage by these the contradictions, dilemmas and paradoxes. The information age has exacerbated each, as well as the impact on free speech. For decades, a de facto censorship was institutionally imposed. Outside limited access to printed word, radio and television media, where could the public express itself?
Now, anyone can “go viral” and be read, seen or heard by millions through social media and the Internet. Privacy no longer can be fully protected. And what may prove to be a youthful indiscretion can become part of one’s permanent record for good or, likely, ill.
International politics are no less affected. In Ukraine, principle in ejecting Russian forces to reverse the invasion and hold Moscow responsible for war crimes and reparations and reality in that Ukraine are in direct conflict. Yet, what outcome other than through exhaustion and unacceptable losses that force a negotiation exists?
Henry Kissinger advances this analysis over the future of Russia and Ukraine several steps further. Is isolating Russia practical, possible or even useful? And if Russia is excluded from future security arrangements, who will that benefit? Emotion leads to favoring isolation. Reason leads to engaging Russia. But will emotion or reason prevail in rationalizing these tensions?
One of the few issues on which Republicans and Democrats and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue agree is the primary challenge of China to international stability. China’s economic power and its growing military strength are viewed as threats and dangerous, especially toward Taiwan, where a Chinese invasion has not been ruled out by Washington. But China’s economic health is vital globally, as well as its cooperation on climate change and other transnational dangers.
How to manage these competing and opposite forces in both foreign and domestic policy is perhaps the major future challenge. And the contradictions, dilemmas and paradoxes may prove resistant to any sensible solution. Nor is the future made any brighter by how the United States has dealt with past contradictions, dilemmas and paradoxes.
Unfortunately, no immediate or simple remedy is obvious. Public trust and confidence in government and most American institutions are at historically low points. President Joe Biden’s mishandling of classified material, for whatever reason, is decidedly unhelpful. If two presidents are incapable of keeping the nation’s secrets secure, who is?
The House of Representatives has formed a “problem solvers” group working on a bipartisan basis. The Senate is doing the same informally. The looming 2024 presidential elections will complicate these efforts as both parties place winning above all.
As the White House has been unable to “heal” the wounds and bind the nation together, that responsibility now rests elsewhere. That leaves Congress. But is Congress up to the task?
To that end, the leadership of both Houses and both parties must meet discreetly to plan a way ahead. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has minimized the threat of a government default, suggesting he fully understands the need for bipartisanship, if not nonpartisan action. Whether the speaker and minority leader can or will be convinced remains problematic.
Without political leverage, the alternative is to prove in advance that failure to address these contradictions, dilemmas and paradoxes will be disastrous to the nation and much of the world. Is that possible and who will carry that message?
Finding answers to these last two questions is critical if these crippling contradictions, diabolical dilemmas and perilous paradoxes are to be resolved. And if they are not?
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington’s Atlantic Council, the prime author of “shock and awe” and author of “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him @harlankullman.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The 118th Congress convenes at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on January 3, 2023. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo