What with the government shutdown and the threatened credit default, it is becoming more and more difficult for Americans to look at our two political parties and declare “a plague on both your houses.” While a few continue to cling to what political scientists call “false equivalency,” most blame our current crisis on the GOP, including even the carefully centrist Washington Post editorial page.
The problem with people quoting Mercutio’s line from Romeo and Juliet is that it too often becomes an excuse for inaction. If both parties are equally to blame, then there is nothing to be done and people opt out of electoral politics altogether. Unscrupulous politicians can even use this reaction to their advantage. After all, if reasonable people turn their back on the political process, then the extremists have more sway.
If one looks at Romeo and Juliet, one realizes that Mercutio is not the right man to be blaming both houses. To be sure, there is not a great deal of difference between the Montagues and the Capulets, so in this case charges of equivalent responsibility seem justified. But Mercutio himself has fully sided with the Montagues and is helping enflame the rivalry. After all, if Mercutio did not insist on Romeo fighting Tybalt and then take on the duel himself, thereby prompting Romeo’s ill-fated intervention, things would have taken a less violent turn.
In a way, I suppose this makes Mercutio a good symbol of a number of participants in America’s current battle: while he claims to be above the fray, he is actually fully enjoined. He is certainly not the cool head that is needed to defuse the situation. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet might have found a way to reconcile the two families if this unstable “friend” hadn’t stirred the pot. Think of Mercutio as a right wing media personality who feeds off of conflict and whose ratings would drop if there were a peaceful resolution.
It’s understandable that frustrated citizens would be tempted to declare “a plague on both your houses.” Whatever relief and sense of superiority it allows you, however, ultimately it short-circuits a careful weighing of options. Mature citizens examine both houses and then base their subsequent actions on the basis of their understanding. They also hold even their own house accountable. Anything less is self indulgent and goes against Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an informed electorate.