Something is rotten in the State of Denmark
–Hamelet, William Shakespeare
As we celebrate the Fourth of July this year, it might feel somewhat bittersweet. I’m definitely with you. I’m feeling less proud of our country this year. And I’m feeling worried about the future of our political system. As the fireworks explode, I smile and cheer. But in my gut, I feel a growing unease about the state of affairs in our great nation. I fear there is something rotten in the state of our Republic.
Over the past decade, American politics seem to have taken a rather dramatic turn for the worse. The intertwined and complex roots of current political dysfunction were likely planted some time ago and their roots appear to have grown deep. How did it happen you ask me? Well, I’m not much of an expert on American politics. I’m an interested observer just like you. I don’t know how it happened, but I think it’s become very serious.
The symptoms of political decline in our Republic are everywhere. Campaign finance reform has not prevented big money from having a disproportionate voice in politics. Super PACs and 501 (c)4 organizations have risen up to fill the void created by the law, and the 501 (c)4s are not required to report the source of donations. And so, “dark money” also has a major say in American politics. Gerrymandering has led to election boundaries designed to rig false majorities. These have encouraged political extremism and polarization in Congress. Meanwhile, obstructionism in Congress has produced annual budget quandaries leading to sequestration, government shut-downs and furloughs of hundreds of thousaiinds of federal employees. It should come as no surprise that Presidents have increasingly turned to Executive orders to circumvent the deadlock in Congress.
And then there’s a large segment of American people on both sides of the aisle who are angry and fed up with our political system. So much so that they are determined to rail against “the establishment” even if it leads to the disintegration of political parties and the system that these underpin. These folks would rather “shake things up” and obstruct established political processes than have politicians focus on the hard work of solving the problems facing our nation, a task that requires collaboration and compromise across party lines. These angry Americans seem unwilling to scratch beyond the surface of ideological rants on social media to understand the facts of complex problems and the demands of political compromise. These Americans are right that we have problems. Major problems. And they are correct that our system isn’t working so well anymore. But it’s never wise to throw out the baby with the bath water.
It’s not hard to see that something is rotten in the state of our Republic. But what is that something (or somethings) that has gone wrong? And how might we fix it? Or is it too late? Are we doomed to relearn the mistakes of the past (e.g. the Civil War)? Can the institutions put in place by the Founding Fathers withstand the current political turmoil and divisions? Or are we facing the end of our Republic as we know it? These are the questions that haunt me as I delight in filling my plate with grilled brats and grandma’s potato salad on this Independence Day.
Political analysts have proposed a range of different diagnoses, each of which require a varied set of treatments. We need the right diagnosis to identify the treatment plan and begin our recovery. Otherwise, we will only be putting bandaids on the problem or fixing the wrong problem. And these are bound to come off quickly, revealing the gushing wounds beneath. And we’ll be right back where we started…or worse.
Last fall, Matthew Yglesias argued on www.vox.com in that the American democracy is doomed to collapse. The problem is that our democracy is a presidential system rather than a parliamentary system. Presidential systems, Yglesias says, are inherently unstable because both the president and the Congress are directly elected by the people. Both the President and Congress can claim to speak for the people. The Constitution offers no way to resolve any major disagreement. In a parliamentary system, a vote of no confidence can remove the Prime Minister and the ruling party coalition. Then, a new election is held and a new government is formed. The new parliament picks the new Prime Minister. The Prime Minister can also dissolve the Parliament if he/she disagrees on the direction for his/her nation. Given the current political fragmentation in the United States, I can see the merit in a Parliamentary system. If the American democracy is flawed by design, then the implied solution is to let the system collapse and replace it with something better. No, thank you. If we aren’t seeking catastrophic turmoil, we have no choice but to cling to the Republic created by the Founding Fathers.
Jonathan Chait responded to this argument, claiming that the problem is not institutional design, but rather the extremism of the Republican party. To me, this argument seems oversimplified. Isn’t the growth of political extremism merely a symptom of our problems. I used to identify with the Republican Party, but I haven’t become more extreme. Now I’m without a party, it seems. It’s awfully convenient for Democrats to blame the current state of affairs on the demise of the Republican Party. And I have to ask them, what about Bernie? The problem seems to be deeper than the extremism of a single party. It’s clear on both sides of the aisle that a growing number of Americans no longer identify with either mainstream party. Is the solution to move to a multi-party system? But what if the bi-party system isn’t the problem? What if our system does work after all, but Congress has simply not wanted it to work. Instead, members have obstructed important legislation from begin passed for more than a decade to collect evidence to support their claim that the system is flawed. Politicians have not been working as hard in the past years to make the lives of Americans better. Rather they have been playing the game of politics. No wonder the American people don’t trust politicians and have become less pragmatic and more ideological.
In the July/August 2016 issue of The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch explains that American politics has gone insane because we have reformed “to death” certain features of our democracy that came to be viewed as too undemocratic and corrupt. He argues that our democratic institutions were not designed to function without these informal political processes-such as campaign finance, pork-barrel spending, powerful political committees, political parties, middlemen, caucuses and closed door negotiations. These processes were critical to getting things done. In this case, he solution here would seem to be a reversal of certain reforms or easing up restrictions on these informal processes to get things moving again, in the right direction. I definitely see an issue with overregulation and legalization, but I’m not sure endorsing corruption is the answer either. It doesn’t sit well with me as I gulp down my hot fudge sundae to top off a beautiful Fourth weekend.
But what if, the source of the problem is far less tangible than those stated above?
Daniel Drezner argues in the Washington Post’s PostEverything that the American democracy needs both laws (institutions) and norms to function properly. In recent years, political norms have weakened and declined. The problem is that we’ve lost faith in our political system and certain social norms have begun to disintegrate. I’m inclined to believe that this is the underlying source of our dysfunction. Indulge me for a minute and consider that I might be on to something…just pretend I could be right for a moment.
Pretending I’m right, I have some great news! We finally know what’s wrong. We are merely lacking in faith in and respect for our democracy, and this has led to a decline of political norms and failure of our system. Having identified the problem, we just need to put our good American work ethic and ingenuity to the task and we will be back on track in no time.
Whoops! If this is indeed the right diagnosis, then the solution far more difficult to achieve because of what it requires from us. The solution is the problem. How do we rebuild trust and restore faith in a political system when the political system itself requires these things to function effectively? It’s a dangerous catch 22. Things will get better if only we believe they can get better. But that requires us to put faith in political institutions that are flawed and to allow politicians to find workable compromises across the aisle. But what if too many Americans no longer believe in our political system and cannot be convinced to have faith again? More importantly, what if politicians have decided it’s not in their own interest to restore faith in our political system (a la supported of Brexit who have since resigned)? What if they would rather denigrate the political system that has served Americans for so long and tell us that everything is messed up?
As long as we fail to have faith in the system and participate constructively in the system, the political institutions will fail us. They were not designed to function without faith, respect and our willing participation. And what if we can’t have faith? What if things are too far gone in our country to restore our faith? Well, our lack of faith and growing disrespect for our political institutions will only be reinforced by their apparent ineffectiveness. And then, things will have to collapse before they can be rebuilt. It’s rather doubtful this will be a peaceful process.
President Lincoln warned us long ago about the true threats to American democracy coming from within rather than from some great external power. As we celebrate our Independence Day and conclude a Presidential election season this fall, it is worth considering his wise words.
At what point then is the danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men (and women) we must live through all time or die by suicide.
President Abraham Lincoln
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.