Wisconsin and the growing budget fights

What should we make of the growing budget controversy in Wisconsin, and what is unfolding in Ohio, New Jersey, California, New York and elsewhere? Individual states, and the nation as a whole, are at impasse over what to do. As more people take up sides, the shouting gets louder and shriller. How can we move forward from here?

We’re at logger heads. In Washington, D.C., a potentially nasty budget showdown is brewing with the threat of a government shutdown. And in states across the country, debates have already hit fever pitch. Both Republican and Democratic governors face a steep climb.

Until now, much of the debate has been about posturing, making threats about budget cuts, and predictions of impending doom. The result: people organizing and mobilizing for one side or the other. The debate is becoming more and more like the old “Tom and Jerry” cartoons complete with histrionics and violent soundings than about finding solutions. The fact is that real issues are at stake for people in their daily lives.

We’re only in store for more gridlock unless we take a different path. For starters, it would be helpful for newly-elected officials to recognize that indeed people wanted to slow-down, even halt, some of the “change” that came after the 2008 election. I have long said those elected in 2008 misread their mandate: it was more a yearning for hope in the country, than for widespread change. People wanted to restore their belief that they are part of something larger than themselves AND that we have the collective capacity to get productive things done together. It was the renewal of a genuine sense of possibility we wanted most of all.

That’s a far cry from wanting whole-sale change. Indeed, no one had the confidence either in themselves, each other, or large institutions to bring about large-scale change. But, now after 2010, we are experiencing a repeat of a sorely misread mandate. In voting in new leaders, people had hopes the partisan bickering would end, grown-ups would come to the table to work out solutions, and we’d get our country moving in the right direction. No one, I believe, was living under the illusion that all would be good – only that we could be better, do better.

So now we find ourselves in a jam. Perhaps in the past I might have said that both sides have “retreated’ to their corners, but the fact is that they have left their corners, made a mad dash into the public square, and are looking to brawl. But is it a knock-down, drag out, “Tom and Jerry” cartoon-type fight we need, or is something else called for?

We are at a classic impasse. For the most part, everyone knows we can’t go on as we have in the past – it’s not sustainable. And yet, there is little agreement about what we should do. As with all brawls, the more name-calling, taunting, and wild swings taken, the more likely an all-out fight will break out.

Maybe such a fight is what some politicians want, or at least believe is required to move ahead. But our next step ought not to be a bigger brawl, but the finding of a more productive path forward.

Such a path would require a number of things. First, we must truly shine a light on the underlying issues at hand, rather than just trot out worn-out arguments. Second, we must recognize that working out budgets is really a discussion over what we value most, and it’s worth discussing what we value. Third, no one get everything they want; ultimately, some compromise will be required. Fourth, leaders must find a way to sit down and get things done.

Otherwise, whatever is put into place will only be undone as the electorate swings to support another side in frustration during the next election. Is that the sense of possibility we’re really looking for?