If there’s one thing Americans agree on—besides the fact we don’t agree on anything—it’s our overwhelming mistrust of government. We have no confidence in Washington, and no confidence that elected officials from different parties work well together.
And why should we? Dysfunction in Washington has been a theme for the last several decades.
We cannot seem to agree on why it is so. There are some who say that gridlock in Washington is a result of the personalities holding elected office. Others will say outside organizations—lobbyists, PACs, corporations—are the ones to blame. Still others will point to the lack of a third major political party.
In this case, we might not agree, but at least everyone is correct. The answer is D) All of the above. But here’s the problem, these are symptoms of a diseased Washington; they are not the cause.
And so, we need to stop focusing on the symptoms alone and start talking about why they exist in the first place.
To do that, one needs only to look at the rules and procedures which regulate our elections and the governing process itself—the U.S. political system. Because it is here that the infliction of Washington dysfunction has its primary origins. The Founding Fathers would be greatly alarmed with how far our current system has strayed from what they envisioned when the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
Partisan primaries, gerrymandering, party-determined committee assignments, segregated cloakrooms, the Hastert Rule, and much more have been created by party leaders and political insiders. And done so largely in back rooms with only nominal public representation.
It is important for Americans to understand that these rules have nothing to do with the U.S. Constitution. They are the creation of partisan elites.
Though the complete body of rules that regulate our elections and government processes are a mixture of old and new, most older rules have been transformed into more dictatorial and partisan adaptations. Other rules that were adopted as a force for good have either had their weaknesses exploited or because of advancements in technology and changes in American culture are now detrimental to the system. And of course, there are numerous rules that exist solely because the majority caucus of the time wanted to preserve and concentrate its power or achieve ideological objectives.
As power has transferred back and forth between the parties, each new majority – those in charge of rulemaking—has engaged in retaliation for unfair (or perceived unfair) practices of past opposition governments. Dangerous precedents have been set.
These partisan maneuvers have been exacerbated with the advent of social media, digital voter databases, digital mapping, as well as a lucrative election and political advocacy industry that caters to partisan insiders and special interest groups.
There must also be something said about accountability.
In our political system, partisan insiders are police, judge, and jury. Defective rules, exploited rules, and abolished norms that promoted civility, fairness, and bipartisanship are never repaired or reinstated. Instead, the newly added concentration of power is utilized by each new majority to push its own agenda.
The end result is a system with minimal competition that incites pandering, deception, egotism, and partisanship. All leading to the very sick Uncle Sam we see today.
To give one example of how current rules lead to dysfunction, let’s examine one of the leading causes—the primary election system.
In primary elections, the most successful strategy is for candidates to brand themselves as ‘purer’ in party orthodoxy than their opponents so as to appeal to the base—voters who are typically more ideological and who are the dominant voting bloc. To achieve greater ‘party purity,’ candidates seek to adopt policy and worldviews that are more extreme than their opponent’s.
Over the years, as partisanship has intensified and moderate voters in both parties have steadily quit, thishas become more and more essential to achieving a primary victory.
Once a candidate wins his or her primary, the best strategy to win the general election (because it’s largely an either-or choice between Republican and Democrat) is to increase the unfavorable rating of the other party’s candidate by assaulting his or her character and professional experiences.
Thanks to the format of primary elections, our entire electoral process has become dominated by candidates on the left and the right who, save for a few, lack moral courage, pander unrealistic promises, and are willing to embrace hypocrisy whenever politically prudent.. Independent and moderate voters (roughly 41 percent of the national electorate) are more often than not forced to choose between two bad choices in the general election.
All sound familiar?
Tied to all this is the governing process itself. Inaction—not solving problems—becomes the greater incentive when in office because to solve problems requires compromise. Compromising with the other side dilutesone’s purity and creates the threat of a primary opponent.
And so the rules and procedures governing our political system do not align with pragmatism, good governance, and problem-solving.
But this does not have to continue. Gerrymandering can be neutralized with bipartisan committees, primaries can be reconfigured, separate cloakrooms can become a single cloakroom, and the Hastert Rule can be abolished.
These are steps that will help heal our ailing system. Meanwhile continued inaction, pandering, deception, egotism, and partisanship will lead only to downfall.