The much-vaunted midterm elections laid bare, again, the American political cleave — with a blue-red split in the U.S. House and Senate, but also in the states. Welcome to Culture Wars 2019, where America’s infighting keeps us from thinking big.
Confrontation now seems etched into the DNA of both party’s leadership beholden to their most vocal bases — even if those combined still represent a minority of the electorate.
But for the rest of us, the kindergarten culture of Capitol Hill, with both parties locked in a perpetual blame-game food fight, has grown tiresome. Most voters are not ideological; they simply want results and still think the country is on the wrong track.
This is all to say that the newly elected Congress is on a thin reed to show it can govern. If our leaders don’t start producing, they may start seeing more of those ugly polls showing approval ratings lower than household mold.
Let’s start with something that should be simple and straightforward: fixing the internet. Poll after poll shows that voters want Congress to pass net neutrality and fix internet privacy. That may not salve all that’s wrong online, but will at least make sure its lords don’t manipulate traffic and disfavor certain sites and services for commercial reasons. And it can begin to tamp the tentacular surveillance state and its privacy arbitragers who hawk our online identities to the highest bidders or shady foreign powers.
Congress took a pass on fixing the internet last year for a host of reasons — patronage politics, grandstanding with extremist “message bills” rather than real solutions, and just general dysfunction. And now net neutrality remains marooned in a legal netherworld of listless federal agencies, courts and state governments — all lacking clear authority to resolve the issue.
Politics won, and consumers lost last year. And a closer look at the winking performance art surrounding this debate reveals, in a microcosmic glimpse, why so many voters are turned off by the Beltway.
Republicans didn’t really try to pass a law even though many of their voters support it. They were caught in an existential naval gaze about regulation that has the totem-like power to freeze conservatives — even when some minimal government intervention makes abundant sense. Instead of acting, they chose to grandstand, arguing they would play ball only if the Democrats would come to the table first with a compromise middle ground. And voila, they absolved themselves from responsibility to govern. Or so they thought.
Democrats, for their part, played into this kabuki end-game, arguing that only rearview mirror “reach-backs” — like re-imposing President Obama’s FCC rules that went far beyond net neutrality and fetishized the outdated idea of regulating the internet like a 1930s utility — were the only acceptable solution. They knew Republicans wouldn’t bite, freeing them to grandstand on the issue for the November elections.
Voters want to stop big internet companies and providers from interfering with their internet traffic, but no voter has ever heard of or cares about regulating the internet as a utility. Yet, Democrats handed the debate over to fringe interest groups and let the professional left drive them into impasse with these outdated poison pills. Unlike these dead-on-arrival but highly charged partisan approaches, good governance doesn’t necessarily win the click-bait and fundraising returns on which so many Beltway professionals thrive.
But now Democrats too bear the responsibility to govern.
Overreach and “positioning” have been an irresistible short-term opiate for both parties and their never-ending campaign seasons in the last two decades — but both camps have also seen how voters punish peacocks and show-horses that can’t ever seem to govern. And now in the wake of the Russia election scandal and a raft of online-fueled hate crimes, and with polling showing voters demand results, both parties would be well advised to find common ground.
Supporters of both parties clearly want to fix the internet. What does that take? It takes going back to the creed of 1996, when both parties came together to pass the historic Telecom Act. The secret sauce? To protect consumers with all the regulation genuinely needed, but not a stitch more. The internet became a magical ecosystem of competition and innovation after this bold deal.13 comments on this story
The question is whether grown-ups in both camps can do this again. Can Democrats resist the fire-breathers and professional activists whose real goal is to sustain conflict with unnecessary poison pills like utility rules? And can Republicans shed the ossified ideological blinders of absolute deregulation in the face of genuine voter concern?
Both parties have professed their support for neutrality and some form of privacy protection, and now the question is whether they can control the more extremist noise and deliver. And if that works — well call me Pollyannaish — but maybe the two parties can actually govern elsewhere.