Two recent events say a lot about the state of American politics. Neither says anything good.
First, what I call the "Mueller intervention" has held us back from the brink. No one knows what we were on the brink of, but the unprecedented action taken by special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday suggests it was significant.
As soon as the disputed BuzzFeed article burst onto the scene alleging that US President Donald Trump directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, momentum toward impeachment and confirmation of criminal behaviour began to build.
Rather than let that happen, Mueller must have felt he had an obligation to stop it. That is a good sign, but it is a bad sign that he had to in the first place.
The second harbinger of the sad state of American politics was Democrats' reaction to Trump's proposal on Saturday to end the government shutdown. Rather than appear to take it seriously, many Democrats called the president's offer dead on arrival before Trump even finished giving his address.
The Mueller intervention says something about biased media outlets' hatred of Trump, while the Democrats' dismissal of the president's overture says something about how their insincerity and obstructionist mind-set will manifest itself now that they rule in the House.
Perhaps Mueller sensed things were getting out of control. A cascade was developing that could produce an unstable critical mass of media validation driving public opinion and congressional action that would do lasting harm, not just to the Trump presidency but to something bigger. Usually, the Democrats and many in the media can count on one to reinforce the other. Mueller must have realised this, so he stepped in as a referee and ruled that the tag team was playing dirty.
That he felt compelled to do so suggests a fear on Mueller's part that something significant was about to happen. I hope that in his eventual report or maybe in his memoir, Mueller will explain exactly what drove him to intervene in this instance.
Meanwhile, in a bout of clarity, Trump made a serious offer to end the government shutdown and enhance border security. The Democrats' instantly hostile and dismissive reaction was discouraging and revealing.
None of this is to say that Trump approaches the Democrats or governance generally with clean hands or honest motives, but the new Democratic leadership in Congress has shown that it cannot even fake a willingness to work with the president on something as fundamental as the government being functional.
I wrote last month that, "for the Democrats, the present-day budget fight is a pain-free exercise". I feared that this shutdown might be different, that the president's inability to feel political pain was far from normal and that the Democrats' callousness and indifference toward working with him was unlike anything I'd seen. Given that a deal will be done eventually, it seems Democrats want to make the situation as bad as possible for as long as possible.
And while we're at it, it's not just the United States that is dealing with poisonous relationships and destructive instincts that cripple our institutions.
What is happening in France and with Brexit, along with US gridlock, confirms that pressure is building on democracies and the rule of law. Our enemies are not responsible for the pressure, but they do what they can to feed the flames and enhance the chaos.
I always say democracy is like a garden that must be tended to. Without able gardeners, the natural order of things is wilderness and survival of the fittest. We will see if the 2018 elections come to produce more able stewards of the democratic order or if they will only contribute to its deterioration. And as the 2020 cycle gets under way, we will see if the Democratic Party is about restoring order or if it is only interested in a feral quest to finish off the Trump presidency. (© Washington Post Service)