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What Congress has to do with William Butler Yeats

Congressional moderates are still trying to figure out if there are ways to split differences and make incremental progress toward shared goals — if there the is a center that can hold. 

World War I was, like most wars, a stupid war that, in the end did more harm than good. It shed an unimaginable amount of blood and settled little or nothing, which is why it had to be fought again a relatively few years later, cleverly renamed “World War II.”

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(World War I, as you can probably figure out, was not called World War I at the time. It was called “The Great War” and, rather hopefully although inaccurately, “The War to End All Wars.”)

In the United Kingdom, WWI bled almost immediately into another war over Irish independence. Just then, in 1919, the great Irish poet (and Nobel laureate) William Butler Yeats wrote one of his most famous works, a short piece called “The Second Coming,” a title that, to me at least, is not about Jesus but about the coming of another war to a world in which there is no war that will end all war no matter who promises us that.

The poem is so short, I’ll tack the whole eerie, beautiful thing on just below. But the reason I decided to write about it just now are the third and fourth lines, which read:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

U.S. politics, for much (but certainly not all) of its history, has been able to swing a bit to the left or the right based on the latest election results without getting that far from the center. Major legislation was often passed with some level of bipartisanship. We do not have a historical tradition, when government control shifts across party lines, of repealing everything done on the previous round.

At the moment, that rule of thumb seems to be in danger of ending. The parties are more ideologically coherent than in the past, and bipartisanship is hard to find.

The current president seems determined to undo as much as he can of what his predecessor did. President Obama relied, more than normal in the past, on executive orders to do things for which he felt legislation was unlikely after the first half of his first term, when a brief period of total Democratic congressional control ended. That much government by executive order is far beyond anything the framers imagined when they created the presidency, with its relatively few powers, none of them legislative except to sign or veto laws passed by the Congress. Of course, the Framers’ vision, on that many other scores, has long been a dead letter.

Now the current incumbent is demonstrating that what can be done by executive order can be undone by the next president and many observers believe that President Trump is highly motivated to undo as much as possible of what Obama ordered. It seems, among other things and in my humble opinion, a confusing and inefficient way to run a country.

I suppose all democratic systems have a version of this problem. Until fairly recently the U.S. system operated differently than most. But now partisan lines are more clearly drawn across a fairly coherent fundamental difference of opinion over what the government should do and how to do it.

Congressional moderates are still trying to figure out if there are ways to split differences and make incremental progress toward shared goals like, for example, reducing the share of Americans who lack health insurance, or creating a relatively stable and somewhat progressive tax system.

So I found myself thinking about Yeats’ eerily lovely and alarming thoughts about a center that cannot hold. Here’s the full poem:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.