WASHINGTON — Why are we arguing about issues that were settled decades ago? Why, for example, is it so hard to extend unemployment insurance at a time when the jobless rate nationally is still at 7 percent, and higher than that in 21 states?
As the Senate votes this week on help for the unemployed, Democrats will be scrambling to win support from the handful of Republicans they’ll need to get the required 60 votes. The GOP-led House, in the meantime, shows no signs of moving on the matter.
It hasn’t always been like this. It was not some socialist but a president named George W. Bush who declared: “These Americans rely on their unemployment benefits to pay for the mortgage or rent, food, and other critical bills. They need our assistance in these difficult times, and we cannot let them down.”
Bush spoke those words, as Jason Sattler of The National Memo noted, in December 2002, when the unemployment rate was a full point lower than it is today.
Similarly, raising the minimum wage wasn’t always so complicated. The parties had their differences on the concept, but a solid block of Republicans always saw regular increases as a just way of spreading the benefits of economic growth.
The contention over unemployment insurance and the minimum wage reflects the larger problem in American politics. Rather than discussing what we need to do to secure our future, we are spending most of our energy re-litigating the past.
A substantial section of the conservative movement is now determined to blow up the national consensus that has prevailed since the Progressive and New Deal eras. The consensus envisions a capitalist economy tempered by government intervention to reduce inequities and soften the cruelties that the normal workings of the market can sometimes inflict.
This bipartisan understanding meant that conservatives such as Bush fully accepted that it was shameful to allow fellow citizens who had done nothing wrong to suffer because they had been temporarily overwhelmed by economic forces beyond their control.
The current debate is flawed for another reason: It persistently exaggerates how divided we are. Of course there are vast cultural differences across our nation. It’s not just a cliché that the worldview of a white evangelical Christian in Mississippi is quite distant from the outlook of a secularist on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and whites can offer rather diverse interpretations of the meaning of our national story.