Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 31, 2012

The fiscal cliff: What does it really mean?

It could spell the end of a political party

Mark Heinig
local columnist

— I never expected to write a piece like this. During my long career in education, I played several roles, but I was first and foremost an American history teacher. It was my love of American history that led me to become a teacher in the first place. I taught the subject to middle school, high school and university students. I always enjoyed telling the stories of our past and helping students to discover how those stories affect us today. Even after five years of retirement, I miss doing those things.

I always tried to teach the truth about our past. We are not a perfect people, but we have many more reasons to be proud than to be ashamed. An important reason for pride is that we built one of the most successful democracies that mankind has ever known — quite possibly the most successful one of all! If I were still teaching, I’m not sure that I could continue to make that claim so confidently.

Does our democracy still work as well as it used to? These days, it doesn’t seem so. Our elected leaders have often disagreed in the past, but they have seldom failed to lead! Is that what’s happening now? Have we finally reached the point where our grand experiment in self-rule simply can’t work as our forefathers intended?

I hope not, but that may be the case. Although our leaders often quarreled bitterly, they eventually found ways to compromise. The needs of the American people were more important to them than partisan political advantage. Can they still do that? Or are they so polarized that gridlock has become paralysis? If so, we’re facing a much more dangerous precipice than a fiscal cliff!

Is our government really doing its part when it doesn’t protect us from economic catastrophe? No! The frustration of the American people is becoming painfully evident. Our leaders continue to squander valuable time restating the same worn-out arguments that have already failed. Will they ever put people before politics and reach a workable long-term agreement?

I am confident that they will find a lasting solution. A steep tax increase on the middle class, the loss of extended unemployment benefits for 2 million Americans and 8 to 9 percent spending cuts in many federal programs would bring an abrupt end to a lot of political careers! Since no politician wants that, they will eventually reach an agreement that protects them from political annihilation and the rest of us from economic ruin!

Our founders based American democracy upon John Locke’s social contract as interpreted by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. It consists of some very simple fundamental principles. We all have natural rights, and power originates with us. We form governments to accomplish things as a community that we can’t achieve alone. That’s the contract. We trade power for protection and community services. If the government fails to do its part, we have the right to change it.

Changing the government could happen in several ways. We could amend our Constitution. That’s probably the best choice, because it keeps most of our governmental structure intact. The other choice would be a second constitutional convention. That’s much scarier, because virtually anything in our present system of government could change. We could even adopt a parliamentary system like the British have. There would be many disadvantages, but we probably wouldn’t need to fear a fiscal cliff. Impasse and gridlock rarely occur in Great Britain. If the majority party’s position on a major issue is voted down, they have a new election. That tends to encourage cooperation and compromise.

If our leaders don’t begin to cooperate voluntarily and we don’t change our Constitution, we could witness something we haven’t seen for about 150 years — the death of a major political party. Most of our leaders in both parties are trying very hard to convince voters that their opponents are preventing a solution to the problem of the fiscal cliff.

According to most recent public opinion polls, the Republicans are getting most of the blame. Of course, polls aren’t always reliable, and public opinion is notoriously unpredictable. However, if the GOP should lose most of its support, we could end up with only one major party — the Democrats.

I hope that doesn’t happen, and I don’t think it will. Even if it does, single party rule has never lasted long in America. We need both liberal and conservative viewpoints to govern ourselves effectively. One political party cannot speak for both groups. Whenever that occurs, the party splits or dissatisfied voters form a completely new party to challenge the other one.

I sincerely believe that we will not need to change our Constitution or our present political parties. I am convinced that we have elected leaders who will choose to serve us as diligently and honorably as their predecessors did.

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana principal and teacher. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.