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How Can We Not Be Asking This Question?

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This piece has appeared in newspapers in VA-06.

Everyone old enough to remember an earlier era should recognize that American politics have grown uglier and more dysfunctional. If we compare the period from the end of World War II up until, say, the 1990s, with the period since, the deterioration is unmistakable.

People who worked on Capitol Hill as recently as the 1980s say there has been a striking decline in the cordiality and constructiveness of the interactions between lawmakers of the two parties. And any citizen can see how the relations between the parties manifest a rancor and bitterness way beyond what was seen in America for generations.

Whereas people in an earlier era understood politics to be about the art of the compromise, a large portion of our current electorate rejects the idea of compromise, preferring all-out conflict even at a time when elections have given us divided government.

Whereas previously there was a widespread ethic for showing respect to the office of the president, and thus for the system, regardless of one’s opinion of the particular office-holders, nowadays there are political rewards for treating the president with contempt.

Whereas in an earlier era, it was generally accepted that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and that when you lose you deal with that and move on, in our times we see a lack of acceptance of the legitimacy of duly-elected opponents, and an unwillingness to acquiesce in duly-passed legislation becoming the law of the land.

This transformation is of utmost importance. It’s not just that these changes make the American scene uglier than it used to be. Such deterioration of our politics has also inflicted profound damage: The resulting dysfunctionality of our political system has made us as a nation unable to act to meet the challenges we face.

With changes so stark and so consequential staring us in the face, one would think that our national conversation would have focused on the question: “Why have things gone wrong?”

It seems an essential question: Identifying the forces that have moved us in this unfortunate direction would seem necessary for figuring out what has to change now to restore America to political health.

And isn’t it customary in America – when we face calamities — to raise such questions?

When terrorists strike our homeland, do we not empanel blue-ribbon commissions to look into how our security systems failed to prevent the attack?

When the threat from the Zika virus appears, do we not launch serious research into its causes and consequences and ways of blocking its means of transmission?

Arguably, the breakdown in our nation’s ability to govern itself effectively is a greater threat to our national well-being than either of these.

Moreover, the question about our political deterioration – much more than those others – is one that calls for citizen involvement. It is we citizens, after all, who are ultimately responsible for the health of our democracy. And when our politics functions less constructively, it can be assumed that one part of our disorder involves the citizenry rewarding rather than rejecting destructive political conduct.

Identifying the forces that have moved us in this unfortunate direction would seem necessary for answering the related question, “What has to change for America’s political health to be restored?”

How is it, then, that this question – which ought to be at the center of our public discourse – has received hardly any sustained attention in our mainstream discourse?

Imagine a Rip Van Winkle who awakens now from a sleep begun during those post-war decades. How amazed he would be to see how poorly America’s political system is functioning—with the least productive Congresses in our history, failing to pass legislation dealing with festering problems like the of millions of undocumented immigrants living in the shadows, and with the challenge of climate change.

Our Rip Van Winkle would doubtless ask us, “How did this happen?”

Then imagine our newly awakened American from that earlier era looking into our mainstream public discourse around that question during these years of deterioration. He would be freshly amazed, would he not, to see how little that question has been raised in our mainstream public discourse? Would he not be amazed to see how the nation – its citizens, its politicians, its media – seemed so little interested in knowing what had changed in America to make it possible for so many unprecedented political developments to occur?

I imagine our Rip Van Winkle then asking Americans as a people, “How can you not be asking how this happened?”

  • TheWB

    The rancor started when the Democrats started hounding Reagan. In their view every Republican was Nixon. By today’s standards the two parties were pretty close to each other. When Clinton came to power and the house was lost to Republicans, Democrats got paid with their own coin. With the Internet, and people choosing their news sources that reflect their bias, we now have ultra polarity

    When members of Congress spend the majority of their time fundraising, you have politicians beholden to special interests.

    • How did Democrats “hound” Reagan? My recollection, backed up by a review of the history, indicates that Reagan got a lot done with a Democratic Congress during his two terms in office. As for “hounding” him, in stark contrast to Republicans and their Benghazi witch hunt, Dems didn’t politicize a much, much worse tragedy – the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings that killed 241 U.S. servicemen, among others…

    • Andy Schmookler

      Lowell is quite right that this “hounding of Reagan” thing should have any place in our history. Democrats did indeed cooperate with Reagan in various ways. And the friendship between Reagan and Tip O’Neil gets cited all the time. The years of Reagan were not acrimonious by any historical standard. Probably more benign that the Republicans’ treatment of FDR. And even George W. Bush got things done with the help of Democrats, with a third of them helping pass some of his key legislation, like the infamous Bush tax cuts.

      There is no symmetry here in terms of what Party has insisted on war. The Democrats had huge reasons to try to impeach W, but did nothing. Whereas the Republicans sought to impeach the Democratic president before him for misdeeds that had absolutely nothing with the performance of his constitutional responsibilities. A stain on a blue dress: high crimes and misdemeanors indeed.

      The Republicans have long had some deep-seated sense of grievance, and though that when Democrats refused to conduct hearings for judicial nominees because they were manifestly rather far to the right of the mainstream, that is somehow a grievance. But then they block a Democratic president’s nominees for the courts for no other reason than that they want to block the other party from exercising what are supposed to be the powers of the presidency.

      Which ever way the power balance goes, they take the position that asserts their right to more power.

  • Quizzical

    How did this happen? My answer is when television saturated the culture. That’s when looking and sounding good became more important than actually being competent, and that goes for journalists as well as politicians. Hasn’t television appeal decided every Presidential election since 1960? Name one where the more telegenic candidate lost the general election.

    The flip side of that is that to bring down such a telegenic politician, and take away that natural advantage, it is necessary to “go negative.”

    • I’ve disliked TV for years, and that feeling has only grown as time’s gone by and it’s gotten more pervasive, corrosive, nasty, stupid, etc. Definitely one of the worst inventions ever.

    • Andy Schmookler

      With respect specifically to the role of the media, it seems to me that right-wing radio has contributed more profoundly to the kinds of political dysfunction described above — the anger and transformation of opponents into enemies and politics into all-out-war — than television.

      • Right-wing radio and cable “news” (and more broadly, the “vast wasteland” of television) are both toxic sludge in our culture.

        • Andy Schmookler

          Your mention of “cable news” reminds me that I should definitely have included the rise of FOX News — albeit that was maybe seven or eight years into the Age of Limbaugh — as among the major instruments of creating this pathology.

          Am I right, Lowell, in assuming that you don’t mean to imply some false equivalence between FOX and MSNBC? I, for one, think that a program like Chris Hayes’ does an excellent job of exploring and illuminating the things we citizens should know and understand.

          • “Am I right, Lowell, in assuming that you don’t mean to imply some false equivalence between FOX and MSNBC?”

            I think MSNBC is mostly trash. I think FOX is evil incarnate. So..no false equivalence. 🙂

      • Quizzical

        Maybe another approach to the question is to follow the money. Scare tactics are certainly a big part of political fund-raising. I’m thinking of direct mail solicitations that I’ve seen my elderly mother get. I think it is safe to say that the need to raise obscene amounts of money by appealing to fear and characterizing the opposition as the enemy who must be stopped at all costs, has added to the political dysfunction.

        And now there is an entire ecology of fund raisers out there, doing this not only for their causes but for their own gain.

  • Owl

    It started with Gingrich. Once the GOP took over in 1994 bipartisanship was lost entirely on a whole host of issues. Now one could argue that it started before that, with the long game effort by conservative and libertarian think tanks and groups like ALEC to build an intellectual and political base. One could argue it began with Reagan and the Meese Justice Department which focused heavily on judicial nominations and alternative interpretations of the constitution. But it came to be in 1994. Around the time I came to DC. And it has been mutually assured destruction ever since.