One year ago, I was a full-time cheerleader for comprehensive tax reform. The Speaker of the House had symbolically reserved H.R. 1, expected to be the most highly prioritized bill at the front end of the 113th Congress, for a legislative overhaul of the United States Tax Code. It was going to be great for business, a relief for middle class families, and a big step toward fair, unspoiled economic competition. Perhaps most importantly, tax reform was going to be a boon for a Congress struggling to win the respect and trust of disenchanted voters, fed up with government unproductivity to the point of checking out of the process entirely. It was a considerable undertaking, one the U.S. Government hadn’t gone through successfully in more than 25 years, but it seemed doable, certainly within the realm of possibility. And I was not the only person in Washington who thought so.
The Capitol was plagued by a series of unfortunate events in 2013 – some due to circumstances outside anyone’s control, most others inflicted on the city and the country it represents by a handful of anthropomorphic flame-throwers. One of the most frustrating phenomena, however, was the collective denigration of those who still believed it could get better, those precious, naïve American Dream-enthusiasts who still thought their government was capable of living up to its creed.
There was an air of “you simply don’t understand Washington as well as I do” about anyone who approached us with a patronizing rebuke of hoped-for legislative accomplishments. A close friend of mine deemed it arrogance, perceived on the part of the rebuke-r to be a worldly acumen, an intellectual cynicism characteristic of a disaffected Washington insider. I think he was right. Perpetrators of optimist-shaming came in a wide range of demographic and professional shades, yet each of them thought he had a political foresight achieved after many (or few) formative years of having his dreams crushed. They expected and projected the worst because they couldn’t bring themselves to imagine the best.
“I’ve seen Washington fail – one day you’ll be as wise, pessimistic, and contemptuous as I am.”
I actually got a mind-numbingly condescending “oh, sweetie” once in response to my insistence that tax reform was not a 21st century impossibility. When did idealism become embarrassing? When did hope go out of vogue?
Cynics refuse to recognize that faith in the system is vital to its success. The American model is a paradigm-shattering political experiment – it is unprecedented in its success as a free, heterogeneous, internationally attractive Republic. I get excited about it. It’s exciting. Conceptually, no model exists that is more advantageous for people, regardless of the socioeconomic stratum in which they arrive. Unfortunately, great ideas have been undermined by some men and women unfit to serve as this important city’s stewards. But even they do not make those ideas any less great, nor the system great thinkers envisioned any less capable of greatness. As Mr. Smith said after he went to Washington, “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here. You just have to see them again.”
Tax reform – or entitlement reform, immigration reform, education reform, [insert omnibus government reform package here] – is not impossible because the American political system is defective and powerless. It is unlikely because too many of Washington’s delegates are self-important and ineffective. Our political problems are superficial and not systemic, like asking a 10-year-old to give a lecture on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They’re frustrating problems, to be sure, but they are not insurmountable ones. The dichotomy between pessimists and optimists is usually illustrated by a glass half empty and a glass half full. I like to think that there is one clear distinction between Washington’s cynics and its idealists – the former believe our political system is broken, while the latter cry out that it’s fixable.
My favorite graduate school professor tells his students that as soon as they find themselves no longer inspired or awe-struck by Washington’s marble symbols, it’s time to leave. I wish more politicos would take his advice. Call me naïve, laugh that one day you’ll find me in the pit with those who have no faith in Washington or its inhabitants. But if you truly believe that no good can ever come of this place, that reform is a cul-de-sac, why wake up every morning to beat your head against a wall you’ve already judged immovable? If your defeatist disposition does not allow you to appreciate that the smart, driven men and women in D.C. are capable of reforming the tax code or developing education policy that actually works for kids or making the case for investment in scientific research or tackling economic inequality, then why bother? If reform is impossible and hope is shameful, then what’s the point?