The American Political System is in Chaos
As we stand on the eve of another presidential election, we are witnessing an unprecedented decline in the way our country is governed.
The problem starts with our form of government. Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” This describes it in a nutshell.
Democracy is “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them through a system of representation involving free elections.” It is the rule of the majority.
When I was on the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Alderman, my mantra was, “It’s all about four votes.” With a seven-person Board, nothing passed without a majority. It did not matter how good your idea was, if you couldn’t muster four votes, it didn’t get implemented. I learned early on that the system we have created necessitates concession to other views.
Democracy requires compromise. Compromise inevitably means that policies represent the “lowest common denominator,” that which is least objectionable to the largest number of people until you reached a majority. In other words, democracy requires mediocrity.
This highlights the difference between “politics” and “governance.” Politics is about the distribution of power and wealth. Everything is politics-government, business…marriage.
Governance is the business of accomplishing the tasks that “we the people” have ceded to the government to do on our behalf. This includes things like passing a budget. The process of governance, like democracy itself, requires compromise. Not everyone will have the same view about how to allocate funds in a budget. This is where politics interferes with governance.
The major problem in our system today is that our elected officials have forgotten that their primary task is governance. They have let politics become their main objective. This has left the real business of our government undone or inadequately done. Our elected leaders have failed us…massively!
There is another unfortunate trend that has steadily eroded our ability to govern. We do not treat each other with the respect due an individual. We do not deem any ideas except our own as relevant or worthy of consideration. Government cannot function under these conditions.
Compromise requires the acceptance that perhaps I don’t have all the answers. I do not have all the information. Even the information I do have has been filtered by the messenger. I have prejudices and biases. I have my own world view. It is the height of arrogance to believe that I am omniscient, that I am always correct. I am not God and our elected leaders should stop acting as if they are.
This leads to the fundamental relationship that has developed between the political parties and their opposites across the aisle. Their relationships have become “mean” and “polite.” It should be “blunt” and “civil.”
Our rhetoric is simply mean. If we disagree, it is because they are stupid and ignorant. Because our opponents’ ideas are invalid, the person holding it lacks legitimacy. However, our politicians, Donald Trump excepted, feign politeness. We tend to talk around the real problems without meaningfully acknowledging our differences. We talk about the symptoms rather than try to treat the disease.
We are fake.
Bluntness on the other hand, means that we speak our mind-the truth as we see it. However, if we are civil, we tolerate alternative views. We can accept the notion that our policies can be made better and maybe the person across the table has some nugget of wisdom that might just do that.
We can agree to disagree, but in the end our leaders must still do what people elected them to do-govern. If that requires compromise, so be it. If a politician is unwilling to compromise, they lack a fundament prerequisite to represent us in office.
The reason for this shift stems from the fact that “dogma” has replaced “principles.” Principles are fundamental truths upon which our belief systems are founded. They are idea-based. They may differ, but generally stay consistent in people. Principled action demands respect, even if we disagree with the message.
On the other hand, dogma is the adherence to a “truth” laid down by some authority, like a political party or an interest group. It is an idea interpreted by someone. The focus is on the organization or person rather than the idea. Dogma has no alternative. It has sole legitimacy and anyone not adhering to its tenants is a heretic.
In that respect, our elected leaders have become like religious zealots. Their “truth” is more important than the people they were elected to serve. All too often, those “truths” are the dictates of special interests not the fundamental principles upon which our country was founded.
Based on this, we are seeing the splintering of our political parties. Dogma is dragging them in different directions without the hope that reasonable people can come together to form a consensus we can live with. It seems at least possible that the Republican Party may fundamentally fracture. It would not be surprising to see a third party run if Trump does not win the nomination. The conservative coalition, already weakened by the emergence of the Tea Party, would dissolve.
It is conceivable that the Democrats will crumble as well at some point. Forty percent of their electorate has voted for a socialist candidate and that group is primarily composed of Millennials…the future of that party
I think we are in for a period of chaos. I would love to say, “We just need to vote in the right people.” I’m not sure they are willing to run, to face the “mean” and “polite,” dogmatic world of politics.
My real hope is that out of chaos, sanity will emerge. A significant number of people are simply fed up with the system as it is. This is the primary impetus of Trump’s initial popularity. He was not “them.” He is an agent of change and the walls are crumbling. However, he is not the one to put it back together in a meaningful way.
Perhaps someone or some movement will emerge from the wreckage. It is not beyond comprehension that two extreme parties will evolve and that the “silent majority” in the middle will coalesce around truly getting things done.
In the end, despite my pessimism, I fundamentally believe in the greatness of the American Experiment. I believe in our people. I believe we will figure this out. Tomorrow is a new day and we have the opportunity to make it what we wish it to be. That is a fine place to start.