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Obstruction for Obstructionism's Sake

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For a high school history and government teacher, 2009 brought with it many challenges that provided unique fodder for classroom discussion. The financial meltdown and stimulus raised questions about government intervention, and the balance between personal responsibility and institutional accountability. The health care battle forced a dialogue about what citizens can and cannot expect in a democratic, but also capitalistic, society. And concerns about the future of the planet at a time of severe economic downturn forced my young charges to consider how government should prioritize dollars and resources whose objects often seem to be at cross-purposes.

Because my students were just beginning to engage in current events (OK, I forced them, but some of them actually liked it!), none of them was particularly ideological. They wholly believed in the nation's ability to solve these problems, and therefore made their arguments in good faith -- a welcome departure from the current political debates and ideological warfare unfolding in our nation's capital.

In fact, when one considers the political battles of the past year, the obstruct-for-obstructionism's sake attitude of the Republican Party seems particularly vexing. On the one hand, this type of demagoguery can, unfortunately, bring about results at election time. But it deceives the public into believing that every complex issue can be resolved by a simple yes or no vote. On a more philosophical level, I just don't get it. I teach my students that people run for office in order to effect change and to influence public policy But the Republicans seem to stand in stubborn opposition to any change at all, even if it means voting against the interests of themselves and their constituents.

With health care for example, the Republican Party takes great pleasure in sabotaging reform (though, why they don't also then try to dismantle Medicare and Social Security in the name of intellectual honesty mystifies me). What, exactly, are they celebrating? "Hooray! More sick people will go without treatment!" "Yippee! Greater financial burden on cash-strapped Americans due the costs of the uninsured!" "Woo hoo! Critically overcrowded emergency rooms!" When my students discuss this issue, they don't all agree on a solution. But not one of them turns away from the fact that health care is a critical issue that, from both a humanitarian and an economic standpoint, needs to be addressed. They stay engaged, even without the incentive of a voting public for whom to pander.

Global warming provides another glaring example of this sort of knee-jerk obstructionism. If there's one thing we're all clear on, no matter how strange and counterintuitive, conservatives dispute the science on climate change. However, their smugness at shooting holes in every piece of datum brought forward leads down a rabbit hole in which any legitimate environmental concern is labeled suspect. Even if (and it's a BIG if) global warming isn't a threat, why revel at shooting down innovation and progress? Is there really a problem with cleaner air and water? Do Republicans feel the U.S. has had a good, long run as the premiere innovator and marketer of cutting-edge technology, and we should let India and China have a go? My students are young; global warming really isn't up for debate for most of them. But they are savvy enough to recognize the economic challenges inherent in addressing the problem. Still, they find it unthinkable that elected officials would thwart efforts at greening America (a win-win, in their estimation) strictly to score short-term political points.

The big question is: in their pursuit of purely ideological victories, what are Republicans advocating for? The aforementioned issues are not particularly ideological. I don't think lefties and righties disagree as to whether good health is desirable. And I don't see anyone, Democrat, Republican or Independent, fighting over housing tracts built in the shadows of chemical plants and oil refineries. In short, there is certain obviousness to the need to solve these problems that should transcend partisanship.

Republicans and Democrats alike were duly elected to serve the people's interest. And it is indisputably in the interest of the people to reform our health care system. Doing nothing will, in the long run, prove more costly.

Similarly, Republicans can quibble over the science of global warming if they choose to. But that doesn't change the fact that fossil fuels are dirty, expensive, and finite. If the United States fails to accept the challenge to go green, it will suffer the economic and environmental consequences - no matter which party controls the White House or Congress.

As we start the new decade, celebrating the inaction and monkey-wrenching of 2009 is a particularly inappropriate attitude. It also disappoints those, like my high school students, who are still earnest and idealistic enough to believe their elected officials have the nation's best interests at heart, regardless of party affiliation.

Republicans can look back at 2009 and celebrate a year of pointless obstructionism. Or, they can resolve to engage in the critical problem solving of the New Year. Republicans: Don't make me a liar. Prove to my students that you share their concerns and are committed to creating a brighter future for all Americans. Here's to 2010!