What Republicans and Democrats should do now: nothing

Regardless of the election results, Republicans and Democrats will be tempted to react quickly, angling for advantage. Rather, they should rest, reflect, and recharge. After this frenzied campaign, a political sabbath would give our leaders time to think, instead of just spinning a message 24/7.

No matter how Democrats and Republicans fare in today’s voting, leaders in both major political parties will get lots of advice on how to handle the results. Most of it will promote a flurry of activity over the next few months to “control the message” until the next Congress begins.

But the best advice of all may be the opposite: Once the campaign is finished, high-ranking Republicans and Democrats should do nothing.

I don’t mean that the movers and shakers of the political establishment should be inactive indefinitely. But after a year-long campaign, voters seem exhausted, and the politicians who have tried to get their votes must surely be tired, too. A little rest, one gathers, would do both the electorate and the elected officials who are supposed to serve them a world of good.

Granted, in the nation’s capital, and in state capitals around the country, the idea of down time doesn’t sound like a political winner. After all, we’ve just had months of campaign speeches in which Democrats and Republicans alike promised dramatic action to soothe the nation’s ills. And these troubled times, touched by economic woes and worries about terrorism, would seem to argue for the urgency of acting quickly.

But leadership clouded by physical, mental, and emotional fatigue has serious drawbacks, as author Wayne Muller reminded readers more than a decade ago. Here’s Mr. Muller’s message of warning:

“Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing. Because of our desire to succeed, to meet these ever-growing expectations, we do not rest. Because we do not rest, we lose our way. We miss the compass points that would show us where to go, we bypass the nourishment that would give us succor. We miss the quiet that would give us wisdom.”

Those words come from “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,” a 1999 book in which Muller argues that the principles of rest embodied in the religious traditions of the sabbath make sense in secular life, too.

In the years since Muller’s book appeared, the pace of public life has accelerated even more, with campaigns increasingly connected to the 24/7 demands of cyberspace and the cable news cycle.

What has been telling, in the analysis of this campaign season, has been the way in which the elections have been summarized as a species of industrial production: the amount of money spent, the number of ads run, the eventual market share – in seats gained or lost – of the likely winners or losers.

If our political culture has come to embrace the ethic of the factory – a seven-day operation, without pause for reflection – then we shouldn’t be surprised that the language of our political discourse so often sounds vaguely robotic, as if it’s being nudged through an assembly line for public consumption.

Mark Slouka illuminates the problem in “Quitting the Paint Factory,” a perceptive piece in his wise new book, “Essays from the Nick of Time.”

Noting the civic implications of constant busyness, Mr. Slouka writes that “idleness is not just a psychological necessity, requisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press.

How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due.”

Perhaps the better model for enlightened leadership isn’t the factory but the farm, an enterprise grounded in the assumption that there is value in being fallow, that good things can come from brief periods of inactivity.

Just think of it: A day or two in which leaders of both parties and their followers are quiet, pensive, and restful, neither side angling for advantage over the other.

Politicians aren’t likely to welcome this idea unless the public signals its approval. Which is why, with the elections now concluding, we might let our leaders know that now is the time to just sit there and do nothing.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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