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Bernstein: Coffee-cup politics
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Jonathan Bernstein

For The Washington Post.

Washington-area Starbucks are distributing coffee cups with "Come Together" written on them, in support of a deal on "fiscal cliff" issues. Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz has blogged a "can't we all just get along" type of explanation on the company's website.

First point: Schultz says that "our elected officials in Washington D.C. have been unable to come together and compromise to solve the tremendously important, time-sensitive issue to fix the national debt." The tone of the post is neutral, but there's nothing politically neutral about a claim that "to fix the national debt" is either "tremendously important" or "time-sensitive."

Beyond that, the situation right now is that continued squabbling and inaction is by far the quickest way available to dramatically reduce federal budget deficits — because inaction would allow much larger tax increases to take effect than anyone actually wants while also allowing the deep "sequester" spending cuts to take effect.

A second point is that the fiscal-cliff discussions are critical issues over which political actors — politicians, interest groups, political parties and individual citizens — have strong and legitimate disagreements. I think that a general willingness to compromise is a good thing; it is necessary for democracy, particularly our Madisonian version, to work.

But the fights, including vicious and intense battles, that precede that compromise are even more necessary. Self-government requires advocacy; bargaining requires at least a bit of brinkmanship from time to time. Even if everyone involved accepts fully the need for cutting a deal at the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with pretending that they're willing to risk no deal up to the point of compromise.

All that said, the plain facts are that the two political parties have not been equivalent when it comes to brinkmanship and willingness to compromise; the Republican Party and its constituents have come to consider compromise an inherently bad thing. Perhaps pretending otherwise and urging everyone to "come together" is the best remedy. But I suspect that a better remedy would be to point out exactly who is responsible, even if it means taking sides.

As political science professor Seth Masket has pointed out, there is an undercurrent of lack of interest in democracy in these types of "neutral" calls for everyone to get along. This one is mostly harmless, but if Schultz believes his own rhetoric, he should be calling for whatever policies he believes are best. That's the best way to influence the process. Even if it might not fit on a coffee cup.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics.

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