Rebuilding a middle ground is the only way to fix a broken America

So long shining city upon the hill.

There are, of course, those who scoff that the idealistic notion of American exceptionalism never existed at all.

Others might reasonably suggest that, in fact, it vanished years ago — not in one fell swoop, but incrementally with each passing hour of cable news, gerrymandered district, and bruising nomination battle.

Never mind the when and how. There will be plenty of opportunity for the pundit class to deconstruct what went wrong and divvy up the blame.

But exhibit one in the case for its disappearance is the U.S. government shutdown, which, after five long weeks, has found temporary resolution — the stopgap funding arrangement agreed to by lawmakers and President Trump will reopen government until Feb. 15.

This temporary reprieve, notwithstanding, there can no longer be any doubt that there is not only something unmistakably rotten in Washington but structurally so.

It has now become clear that we are watching the death knell of American bipartisanship.

So, what? Politics is, after all, a team sport which is, for many, a zero-sum game. Winners and losers and all.

But, public servants — those who dedicate their working lives to the betterment of civil society — should not be reduced to bargaining chips or cannon fodder in a battle that is not theirs.

The president painted himself into a corner. The Democrats know it. And, as is reflected in recent waves of public opinion polling, so too do increasing numbers of everyday Americans.

This isn’t an arcane policy disagreement over appropriations. No, it’s as real as it is tangible.

There are some 800,000 federal government workers who were furloughed or forced to work without pay. And that has come with consequences.

The Food and Drug Administration was forced to suspend all non-essential work, including food safety inspections.

The FBI Agents Association acknowledged, “the resources available to support [federal law enforcement activities had been] stretched to the breaking point and are dwindling day by day.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission told companies planning public offerings, this month, to delay their plans.

This is not what conservatives have in mind when they preach about smaller government.

Whatever your political leaning, it’s worth recognizing many of our neighbour’s greatest legislative accomplishments have actually been bipartisan achievements, from LBJ’s 1964 Civil Rights Act, to the Apollo mission, to the Tax Reform Act under Reagan or the Americans with Disabilities Act under George H.W. Bush.

And there is data to back this idea up. Political scientists have studied polarization by measuring all 2.8 million Senate votes and 11.5 million House votes between 1789 and 2004.

Their study has found that bipartisanship began to rise in the early 20th century, as Republicans became more moderate, and persisted even as Republicans swung back to the right in the 1980s.

That’s a notion that is, today, hard to imagine. Distant memory is the sight of anyone reaching across the aisle to the other side.

While it was Trump’s insistence on funding for a border wall, a project that could not even win approval when Republicans controlled all three branches of government, that caused an unprecedented impasse, this issue is merely a symptom of a much more pervasive disease.

In his farewell address to the American people, Ronald Reagan reflected, “I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life. … in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.”

Principled conservatives within the Republican party would be wise to heed his words.

President Trump may have “owned” the shutdown, but those in the corridors of power have a responsibility to ensure government remains open.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, January 27, 2019)