Keith Burris: Two tribes block the way

·6 min read

May 9—Barack Obama used to have a slogan when he was running for president the first time: "Forward."

It's a good motto — in politics, public policy and in life.

Knowing that few problems have ultimate solutions, only proximate ones, the goal of our government, and therefore our political parties, ought to be forward progress, or, as Mr. Obama also used to say, "better is still better."

The goal ought not to be to "go back" — to Reagan or FDR or anyone else — but to, while preserving our precious constitutional freedoms, move forward on some of our more permanent problems. These would be matters like poverty and opportunity, and protecting the Earth and the seas. At the same time, we should be seeking to make substantial progress on more temporary problems — like the pandemic and the cost of higher education.

Yet, our political parties are often the major barricades to progress because they are so locked into their own tropes and echo chambers.

Both parties run on slogans and simplicities — like more tax cuts or more government answers and spending; cheap, bully patriotism, or wokeness; trickle down will reach you in time or the rich must pay their fair share of taxes. They run on slogans with ideological fervor. But neither party is detailed or coherent enough to have a full ideology, as one might still find in some European parties.

And the group-think of both parties is usually the obstacle to coherent or detailed policy-making or compromise.

We ought to be able to take issues and proposals one by one and examine them within the context of the two great American political philosophies: If government is to exist, especially on a grand scale, it should exist to make life better for all Americans, especially the least advantaged. Or: The purpose of government is to protect individual rights and responsibilities, and therefore its great challenge is to limit itself.

Let's take the issue of free community college, proposed by our President. It is not clear to me why this should be an entitlement. But it is also not clear to me how this stimulates the economy and creates jobs.

I understand the Biden-Yellen concept of public investment: It helps our people and so strengthens our economy by creating both new skills and new jobs. This is its own version, the left's version, of trickle down. And like the Reagan, capitalist version, it is a concept, and works to a point.

But we know that right trickle-down economics creates the most wealth at the top and little at the bottom.

And we know that state-based trickle down can be tremendously wasteful and cause inflation.

So, the real test is empirical: What works? We need to take proposals and programs individually and test them.

That is not only not happening in Washington but it is prevented. The Dems are throwing billions at problems indiscriminately, with few in-depth hearings and less questioning. And the Republicans? What have they got?: Defend Donald Trump, rescue Dr. Seuss, and call the President senile, which the past 100 days or so show he is not.

I see universal preschool as obviously needed and useful. Evidence can be cited. Jobs will be created. Maybe we should concentrate on that and make sure that community college is affordable, which it mostly already is. The greater need with community colleges is that what is offered is applicable — technical training in fields where there are jobs.

Applying data and thought to each part of each Biden proposal would help us enormously.

But it's not going to happen.

Both parties prefer propaganda and superstition.

I'll give you another example of a debate unproductive and beside the point: Statehood for D.C.

The District of Columbia is not a state, it is a city. And the Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, Clause 17, specifically mandates governance for D.C. Congress is supposed to rule it. (Small detail.) The District is also not supposed to be bigger than 10 square miles. Yet, Democrats in the House have passed a statehood for D.C. bill that they will move to the Senate with no chance of passage.

What is the point, except to posture? Especially when there is a solution — to the very real problem of taxation without representation — available. And that solution is for Maryland to annex D.C.

It is inexcusable for D.C. residents to remain disenfranchised after all these years. (It is also inexcusable for the people of Puerto Rico to be taxed and unrepresented. Puerto Rico really should be a state and actually wants and deserves to be.) But would it not be better to choose a proximate solution to the D.C. problem than to posture? Get district residents representation, finally.

But Democrats and liberals are the posture party. It is all about virtue signaling: We care. We are woke. We are guilty. Just as the Republicans have become the yahoo party — the party of people who never apologize and never learn and supposedly care about the great unwashed they never see or touch. They drive trucks that never haul anything and buy guns they have no business owning.

If to be a Democrat I have to specify that American is a racist country, I say no thanks.

There is plenty of racism still afoot, including systemic racism, in virtually every profession. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr., constantly reminded us, the country was not founded on racism. It was founded on ideals (which we have not yet fully attained) meant to expunge all forms of bigotry.

If, to be a Republican, I have to embrace the big lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and excuse the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Donald Trump's role in inciting it, I say no thanks.

Reading recently about the rise of the Green party in Germany, I felt a bit of envy. The two longstanding major parties — the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — aren't getting it done, and the Greens, having discovered moderation and political responsibility, have risen. I think, as I have for most of my adult life, that we need a new party to either replace one of the "major" ones or to shake things up enough to cause rebirth within the Democrats or Republicans. They are now petrified. They are not policy organs but cliché-driven tribes.

We should rebuild the nation's infrastructure and invest in our human infrastructure. But we need to do it with care and at a price we can afford. This could be done with discernment and debate and legislating. At the moment, neither party is interested.

That's dumb, maddening, and kind of insane.

Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade and editorial director of Block Newspapers (

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