Our dysfunctional government needs more losers

We celebrate winning in politics, but shutdown shows the huge value of learning from losing

Todd Dorman
Published: October 8 2013 | 8:07 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 9:32 pm in
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For those of us who learned about the wise, sacred craftsmanship of American government from Schoolhouse Rock and class filmstrips, tossed with a dash of Frank Capra, it’s been an astounding week.

In recent days, since the federal shutdown hit, I’ve read speculation on the staying power of our presidential system. (You can find examples here, here and here.) With its bicameral legislature and strong executive branch each claiming popular support through election victories, with its many checks, but no tie-tier breakers, some are wondering aloud whether we’ve finally found its fatal glitch. It worked swell when our political parties were more ideologically diverse, resulting in a government that reflected a more moderate consensus.

Now, in a time of strident ideologies and sharper divisions between the parties, not so much. If we had a parliament, some argue, a deadlock like this one would lead to a swift election. An escape hatch sounds pretty good right now.

But as I read this stuff, it seems like the real problem is that we’ve forgotten how to lose.

Our political culture celebrates winners. Election winners. News-cycle winners. Winning is everything, according to the latest polls.

Winning is great. But Democracy really depends more on losers. Losers capable of finding the courage it takes to be conciliatory, learn tough lessons, swallow hard and alter approaches. The friction generated by our electoral struggles should spawn new ideas and fresh starts. Not endless crisis.

Republicans failed to defeat President Barack Obama, failed to capture the Senate and held the House while losing seats. Now, a sizable House GOP faction is refusing to fully fund the federal government, or raise the debt ceiling, unless a victorious president agrees to scrap, hobble or delay his biggest achievement. The stuff they’re saying now is identical to what they said before the election. It’s like it never happened. This is a breathtaking example of bad losing.

Republicans can’t seem to admit that they’ve lost the fight to stop Obamacare from coming. It doesn’t mean they’ll never be able to to alter the law, dramatically perhaps. If it’s as big a failure as they predict, they’ll get the chance. But, for now, they need to move on to new battles. In politics, losing is not surrender.

It’s tough. I know, I’m on the losing end of elections all the time. It’s painful. But it’s also necessary. Otherwise, as Schoolhouse Rock might say, we’re stuck in dysfunction junction.

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