Politics in the United States is pretty crazy in 2016. And not all of that dilemma is related to Donald Trump.
In opening up the process, increasing transparency, letting the people decide, challenging the establishment, letting sunshine sanitize the public discourse, and all sorts of other good intentions, we seem to have developed a system of laws, rules, regulations and new customs that basically come together to prevent anything positive from being accomplished.
Obamacare was approved in 2010, but only by working around many of our governmental and political reforms. The Republicans did not – still don’t – want anything to do with it. They seek to “repeal and replace,” a goal that is as elusive today as it was six years ago. Democratic elected officials have paid a heavy price for approving such monumental legislation without a sliver of support from Republicans. Hundreds of state legislators, members of Congress and governors were lost in the process.
But like it or not, Obamacare was approved. Nothing else of any significance has been approved for six years or more.
Things that were routinely approved in a matter of months cannot get anywhere in the gridlock. Agricultural bills or legislation authorizing highway construction (something pretty much all Democrats and Republicans agree to) take years to approve, and the end product is put together with bubble gum and bailing wire, usually without identifying real sources of government revenue to pay for the things that the legislation commits to.
There is a fascinating analysis in a recent Atlantic article (http://theatln.tc/28MmG2M) by veteran political reporter Jonathan Rauch about how political and governmental reforms have led to our national gridlock problem. It is very long, but I recommend it to anyone who might want to understand this problem better.
Rauch notes the dilemma of both national parties in 2016. The Republicans’ problem on the presidential level has been probed in much more detail, but the Democrats have their issues too, resulting from a serious primary contest involving a politician who was technically not even a Democrat 12 months ago.
In Congress turmoil has been the name of the game for many years. Democrats have been more unified than the Republicans, but the Dems are the minority caucus in both houses. Republican chaos has been most pronounced in the House of Representatives, where a block of forty or so far-right wing members has basically achieved veto power on nearly everything. The new Speaker, Paul Ryan, has been even less successful than his predecessor John Boehner in pretty much everything.
The third branch of the federal government, the Supreme Court, is limping along with eight justices after the death of Anthony Scalia. Eight justices have produced some interesting decisions, but this is not the way the Court needs to operate.
The trifecta of gridlock is reality. Solving problems in government usually means being able to do two basic things: recognize the problem at hand, and be willing and able to work with others toward resolution. The governmental and political leaders in this country at this time are not capable of doing that.
The Rauch article suggests that we have arrived at this point because “there no longer is any such thing as a party leader. There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly…”
What exists is a “chaos syndrome,” which Rauch defines as “a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self organization.” Parties, career politicians and organizational structures like congressional committees can no longer hold others accountable, which means all politicians are essentially their own party, their own caucus. Rauch says that our former political system which delivered accountability “did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death.” Along the way political polarization and things like social media hastened the decline.
Rauch likens our national dilemma to a “political disease” that has attacked the body politic. He lays out the dismantling of the immune systems that kept government functioning for much of our national history; what attacked that system and what its symptoms are; and what the prognosis and treatment might be.
One of the great ironies of our political dilemma is that while many political participants oppose any compromise of their interpretation of the constitution as anathema, our Constitution is the very definition of compromise. But the Constitution, Rauch suggests, has one serious omission: it “makes no provision for holding politicians accountable to one another.” Into that breech came our political parties.
Parties for a couple centuries did all those grubby things that provided accountability to our political system like grass-root organization at the local level, patronage and political “bosses.” On the federal level congressional committees and house leadership had pork-barrel and perks to offer or to withhold. Leaders like Lyndon Johnson were masters of the political process and knew how to use it to accomplish things. Can anyone even imagine trying to get civil rights legislation or programs like Medicare approved in 2016 with the political order that now exists?
The political system of the first two centuries in the United States often looked pretty ugly. Rauch notes that the system “could be undemocratic, high-handed, devious, secretive.” But it accomplished some things, bringing “order out of chaos.” The political system “recruited and nurtured political talent, vetted candidates for competence and loyalty, gathered and dispensed money, built bases of donors and supporters, forged coalitions, bought off antagonists, mediated disputes, brokered compromises, and greased the skids to turn those compromises into law.” All this served as an immune system to keep the political body functioning.
Because of all the ugliness of politics and all that closed door wheeling and dealing, reformers set out to clean up everything. The “reform” process began around the turn of the 20th century and continues right on up to today. The reforms included:
- The nominating process. Bosses selecting candidates – bad. Voters selecting candidates – good. The result – party leaders have pretty much become bystanders in the process. People can self-nominate themselves. And they can round up their own circle of supporters to circulate petitions, ring door bells and raise money. With the internet and computer systems anyone can raise money in amounts as low as $2.70 a shot. Polarization of the system makes it relatively easy to gather up the right number of partisans to support a candidate. State party caucuses can make it even easier to round up just the right number of supporters to take over the process – all in the name of democracy. Party fringes flourish. Fringes easily dominate the process.
- Political money. In days gone by, political leaders lined up the money needed to run campaigns. Not so much anymore. Candidates can self-fund, but most spend extraordinary amounts of time raising cash. We have had restrictions on fundraising (McCain-Feingold) and great expansions on how money can be produced (Citizens United). For national campaigns the sky is the limit, but it is the Koch brothers and their cronies who are raising money and securing influence. Candidates cut their own deals without regard to their party.
- Reform in Congress. It used to be that seniority was important. Party leaders twisted arms, made promises, made threats. That was in the days when Congress actually functioned. Today members thumb their noses at their caucus leaders and pork-barrel, aka earmarks, are considered something close to a crime (unless you serve on the Defense appropriations subcommittee – there are lots of military bases and defense contractors). Rauch notes that “Congress has not passed all its appropriations bills in 20 years.”
- Closed-door negotiations. Letting the sunshine into the process is great for the few members of the public who pay attention, but it is mostly good for the media. Too many restrictions on back room discussions lead, however, to grandstanding and self-promotion, which leads to nothing getting done.
Political Viruses, including Donald Trump
Following President Obama’s election, the recession bailout legislation, and Obamacare, the so-called Tea Party came to life. While the Tea Party certainly took many Democrats out of office, it also, after a brief happy-days period, has turned Republican Party politics into a three-ring circus. The far-right now dominates the Party’s activities, even though officially they are just a small minority of the Republican congressional caucuses. It’s called intimidation.
In order to pacify the far-right members, congressional Republicans have entertained all sorts of programs designed to appeal to the base of the party. Social issues, financial issues, global issues were all thrown on the table.
The Republican leadership knew that they could not deliver on most of what they promised, either because legislation could not be pushed through Congress, or because if it did make it through, President Obama would veto it. Regardless, that approach more or less worked until 2015.
Rauch notes that a large segment of the American electorate (he cites a study suggesting that they are 25 to 40 percent of the population) has a very myopic view of government and politics. These folks abhor compromise since they personally believe there are simple and obvious solutions to all major problems. They see politicians (the “establishment”) as the main impediment to getting to those solutions. All that is needed is for a leader to come along who agrees that the political class must be moved aside and, of course, agree with their own views.
The solutions this portion of electorate seeks vary depending on where in the political spectrum people fall, and includes things like:
- Free college tuition
- Single payer health insurance
- Breaking up the big banks
- A wall between the U.S.A. and Mexico
- Deportation of 11 million illegal aliens
- Banning Muslims
Donald Trump, unanchored by facts, policies or any interest in being civil, rings true for many of the no-compromise, give-them-hell voters. Bernie Sanders assumes that voting for him will start a revolution in the country that will lead to all sorts of good things. Neither of them has paid much attention to reality because it does not help their cause. Basically they don’t do reality.
Political insurgencies are nothing new in this country. Both parties have lived through some of this. But George McGovern and Barry Goldwater both had a healthy appreciation of the country’s political system.
Rauch notes that gridlock has gone into overdrive during the past five years. Speaker John Boehner made a legitimate attempt to work out a substantial compromise with President Obama in 2011 on a wide range of issues. It failed, and it has been downhill ever since. Ted Cruz shut down the government. Boehner was basically forced out as Speaker, and Paul Ryan was dragged into the role. It has not gone too well for him. “Chaos,” Rauch notes, “becomes the new normal.”
Prognosis and treatment
Rauch suggests some actions that might deal with the chaos syndrome. Who knows what will work or not work, but when a medical patient is running out of options, experimentation and boldness of effort become the coin of the realm. So here is what he offers:
- Strengthen political parties by allowing them to better coordinate with candidates to reduce freelancing candidates.
- Make it easier for parties to raise money to allow them to support their candidates, rather than having SuperPACs in charge.
- Restore earmarking to the congressional appropriations process to give caucus leaders some leverage in producing compromises.
- Allow party leaders and career politicians to practice their trade along with the challengers and insurgents.
The last point is interesting. Rauch states that “neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally accepted form of bigotry. … Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.”
There is a lot to think about here, but the bottom line is that politics and government in the United States are in deep trouble. It is time to do something about it.