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August 30, 2013

LEE HAMILTON: In Washington, ideology need not reign supreme

Disappointed with its performance, people want answers.

The roots of Con-gress’ dysfunc-tion are complex. But the funda-mental reason is that real differences in ideology and principles about both government and governance exist among the voters. At heart, the reason it’s become so hard for Washington to act is that the two parties are being driven by fundamentally incompatible views.

Conservatives place a heavy emphasis on liberty, individual freedom and self-reliance. They have little confidence in government’s ability to play a role in improving society or the economy, and many of them look upon government as destructive, a force that undermines our basic freedom. They are fearful of centralized power, opposed to redistribution of any kind, and opposed to new government programs — or even to improving existing government programs they’d rather see cut. They reject entirely the notion of raising taxes or imposing new regulations on the private sector.

Moreover, a belief has taken hold among some conservatives in recent years that compromise and accommodation are betrayals of their cause. This has put great pressure on GOP leaders not to budge in their negotiations with the White House and Senate Democrats.

Meanwhile, on the “progressive” side — a label that has come to supplant “liberal,” in part because Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s were so effective at demonizing liberals — there is much greater emphasis on using government to narrow economic disparities and help those at the bottom of the income scale. They emphasize its role in providing equality of opportunity for all and individuals’ responsibility to the community around them. Because they have more confidence in government as a constructive force, they have no trouble with the notion of expanding government’s scope to improve Americans’ lives.

In fact, unlike conservatives, they think government can expand freedom when it’s properly applied, by reining in the power of monied interests. While they do not favor a radical centralization of power in the federal government, as some conservatives charge, they are more willing to accept government action — and the legislative compromises that make it possible. Because they have less confidence in the market to solve all problems, they support both the taxes they believe necessary to run programs they like, and regulations to limit the private sector’s more predatory impacts on the environment or society.

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