11/09/2012 01:37 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

It's Time to Get the Message

Americans have been trying to send their government a message for years. To anyone except the entrenched power elites in Washington D.C., the message is perfectly clear: solve the real problems that you have been elected to solve, don't make up imaginary problems and solve those instead. Yet inside the Beltway the elected elites continue to deliberately misread that message. They have to. In order to address the challenges we send them to Washington to figure out, they're going to have to let go of the radical policies they've been pursuing for 30 years, and compromise between the public weal and the powerful special interests that have bankrolled them during that time.

In the last few elections, the American public has voted for what appeared to be the left, then the right, and back again in quick succession. This doesn't reflect polarization nearly as much as it reflects desperation. We have widespread problems before us, but Washington insists on working only within the narrow 'safe zones' that lobbyists, think tanks and ultra-wealthy campaign donors have defined. This has led to genuinely crazy up-is-down policymaking and a tendency to go after social and moral issues that excite the base but don't have much effect on the big players, such as banking and industry.

After the 2010 midterm election there was a general belief that Democrats, who got trounced, were facing a come-to-Jesus moment. They'd been too liberal, the wise heads in Washington said. They'd pursued a social agenda the public didn't want. This wasn't true. What happened in 2010 was that a dispirited Democratic base stayed home. People weren't upset by Mr. Obama's liberal ideas -- they were appalled that he'd bailed out the big banks and treated their piratical overlords with mincing tenderness. People were angry at a useless Congress that showed no interest in getting things done. It was infuriating. In the absence of accurate reporting on obstructionism among Republicans, blame was ascribed equally to both parties. And the 'Tea Party,' because it seemed to be populist and new, got a lot of votes. As it turned out, the Tea Party wasn't something new, it was something old: a revival of the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, updated in the single respect that it now welcomed Catholics. The Republicans absorbed this fringe group and enjoyed a brief renaissance.

But when the issues are placed squarely before it, a majority in America understands we can't simply return to the 1950s or 1850s to solve our problems. Compromises must be made. We cannot get the government out of health care while interfering with women's personal medical decisions. We cannot pollute our way out of the energy crisis and still address global warming. We can't deport our way out of a changing population. We can't have an ever-expanding military apparatus and simultaneously reduce spending. We can't further cut taxes without decimating the safety net, schools and critical infrastructure. We can't solve the problems of poverty and inadequate medical care by waiting for the poor and sick to die; the rich can't get richer unless the poor get poorer.

And that whole debt crisis thing? We were promised the nation would collapse. It hasn't. In fact, all that profligate spending might even have done some good. We'll pay it back in installments, like any other debt.

So the American public turned out in 2012 and voted to the left again, hoping this time to see some of the genuine change they trounced Republicans for in 2008. Folks may have been energized by the 'Obamacare' victory, which goes a long way to counterbalancing the sting of the coddling Wall Street got. They certainly understand, despite the 'both sides do it' reporting on the issue, that the Republicans were responsible for the debt ceiling hostage crisis and national credit downgrade. And the Tea Party's behavior has demonstrated that the nation cannot move any farther to the right without entering a terrain in which minorities and women must accept second-class citizenship.

Based on the results of this week's election, we won't be dismantling Social Security, Medicare or access to health care as established by 'Obamacare.' The Supreme Court won't be stacked with activist justices eager to overturn Roe v. Wade and further entrench corporate interests over the interests of citizens. Liberal and progressive issues will not get much traction, either, so the right-wingers needn't worry we're going socialist. It seems we have voted to stabilize ourselves.

Now we need everybody, Left and Right, to get engaged in the American project, and to respond to the actual issues that stand before us, not straw men set up as distractions. It's time to let go of rebranding the same old product and come up with something new, even if it upsets the interests that bankroll campaigns. Democrats need to become more than just the lesser of two evils; a party that comports itself like a refugee camp can't win policy fights. Republicans need to stop proving the government is useless by failing to govern. And we voters need to get educated to the real issues, not the rubbish the pundits on television promote.

Otherwise the product of politics is never going to change, only the packaging. Our pressing national business can't wait until another election cycle for us to figure this out.