A scandal involving the executive branch has come to light. The House of Representatives, which is controlled by the opposition party, is demanding testimony from the attorney general and the release of certain documents. The head of the Justice Department has refused to comply and been found in contempt of Congress. The president is now asserting executive privilege in order to justify not releasing the papers in question.
What's that? You wanted to read about the news? I was just rehashing what happened with Eric Holder and President Obama and the Tea Party House in 2012. Three years ago a federal judge ruled that the Obama administration's invocation of executive privilege was illegitimate. As of today, the documents have still not seen the light of day. As for Holder's contempt citation? It's hurt him about as much as a parking ticket.
All of which is a long way of saying that I fail to understand why we should be overly concerned about what is happening now in Washington. Once more we find ourselves in a situation where the White House is controlled by one party and the lower chamber of Congress by another. Here again the attorney general, this time William Barr, is refusing to play ball with the House, now controlled by Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. And it's President Donald Trump's turn to argue that it is his prerogative to keep certain material secret.
These investigations are, along with our semi-annual government shutdowns and all-out war over Supreme Court appointments, the norms of American politics in 2019. They are becoming as predictable as chess openings: Americans elect president along with a party majority in the House; House passes legislation on strict party lines; Americans elect opposition party to majority House; new majority party seizes upon any pretext to begin "investigations" of the executive branch; investigation turns up nothing definite; a great deal of fuss is made over supposed obstruction of the investigation into non-crimes; executive branch stands firm upon its authority over Congress. The stakes in this game, we are told by the investigating party, are nothing less than the integrity of the United States Constitution and the continued flourishing, nay, even the existence of our democratic way of life. Whitewater. Lewinsky. Yellow cake from Niger. Fast and Furious. The IRS vs. the Tea Party. Benghazi. Hillary Clinton's damn emails. Trump and Russia.
Schoolhouse Rock clichés about how government works do not conform to the reality of our political life. In theory political parties are supposed to represent divergent tendencies or interest groups whose interests they attempt to further by introducing and passing legislation. Their mutual acrimony is supposed to be an epiphenomenon, an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of having reasoned debate about matters of public interest. Really it is the other way round. Supposed disagreements about, say, foreign policy or immigration supply the window dressing for the real business going on in Washington: endless conflict between two factions that are defined largely by their opposition to one another.
No one should be surprised that many of the most serious issues we face in this country — the cost of health care, the wickedness of our relationship with the House of Saud, our addiction to electronics and Chinese plastic and junk food — are never meaningfully addressed by politicians. They don't need to be. The question is why the rest of us bother paying attention to what they choose to do with their authority instead. The proceedings might occasionally rise to the interest of a low-level soap opera — Cohen was, gasp, lying again! — but they have very little to do with what we tell ourselves we are sending people to Congress for.
Until our politicians begin offering us competing visions of the common good, ideas and policies that we can consider and either support or reject, Americans have no reason to take Washington seriously. Until the American people reject the nihilism of partisan total war for its own sake, politicians will continue to devote all their energies to investigating and obstructing.
This is what we call a stalemate. Maybe it's time to start playing a different game.