An 1846 painting by George Caleb Bingham showing a collection of voters before a polling place. A polling judge is administering an oath to a voter.
Wikimedia Commons / George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879)
In my last two posts, the dysfunctional nature and enormous political problems of both the Republican and Democratic parties were examined. With division and discord in the Republican party, and a rush toward the political Left by the Democratic that alienates a growing fraction of the American people, how can legislative progress be made towards solving our increasingly serious problems? How can the electorate respond?
U.S. Government Gridlock and Our Shared Dangerous Problems
No matter whether you belong on the neoliberal (Republican) or progressive (Democratic) side of the political divide, or to no particular ideological side at all, you would probably agree the United States is facing a growing number of increasingly nasty and dangerous problems. Most of us even agree on just what those problems are. What we passionately disagree about is what caused those problems, and how they should be solved.
To be more precise, I suspect the following list of our common problems would be accepted by most everyone:
- The health care crisis caused by the problems of Obamacare.
- A faltering U.S. economy, whose slow growth has limited the growth of both jobs and middle-class income.
- A hostile Russia that has interfered in our elections, and poses an increasing threat to our NATO allies.
- A growing nuclear threat from North Korea, which now has an ICBM that can reach the West Coast and as far east as Chicago, Illinois.
- A threat by China to the maritime traffic of international trade in the South and East China Seas.
- The Muslim jihadist threats from ISIS, Iran, and al-Qaeda.
There are some problems that, while occasionally acknowledged by some on the political Right, are mostly emphasized by progressives as being of particular concern. These would include:
Similarly, there are some problems the political Right emphasizes that usually do not concern progressives much. These include:
- The rapidly approaching insolvency of the Federal Government, caused by uncontrolled government spending.
- Growing authoritarian control of American society by the federal government, and the related centralization of increasing amounts of political and economic power in the government.
- Uncontrolled borders allowing a flow across them of illegal aliens, possible jihadist terrorists, and drug cartel traffic.
- The decay of the U.S. armed forces.
Even if we only consider the commonly accepted problems, this comprises a very impressive, more-than-worrisome list. A number of these problems are truly existential. Unless they are solved, we could end up a devastated, or even a conquered people.
Yet, no matter how alarming our common problems are, the dysfunction of our political parties has created a gridlock that seems to hold back any possible solutions. The dysfunction and the gridlock are both created by how evenly power is distributed between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress. In the Senate, the Republicans hold only a two vote majority with 52 votes versus the 48 votes of the Democrats (including the two votes of independents caucusing with the Democrats). With 60 votes being required to invoke cloture on any filibuster, this means Republicans can not pass most bills in the Senate without drawing at least eight Democrats across the aisle to vote with them. The one exception is on budget reconciliation bills, for which filibusters are not allowed. With these bills only a simple majority is required to enact them. Even with budget reconciliation bills, as we have seen in the attempts to repeal Obamacare, the least amount of controversy causing three Republicans to vote with the Democrats will doom the bill.
The situation is a little better for Republicans in the House of Representatives, where they hold 241 seats out of 435 (55.4%), while Democrats have 194 (44.6%). Nevertheless, substantial controversies between Republican moderate and “conservative” congressmen, are also enough to sink a Republican bill in the House.
It is completely unrealistic to expect any Democratic support for any Republican legislation whatsoever. Similarly, although some Republican moderate support might be found for Democratic measures occasionally, substantial Republican help for any Democratic bill is equally implausible. This is not just because of partisan one-upmanship or the quest for increased partisan power, unlike what many believe. This total hostility between the parties arises from honest beliefs that the adoption of their policies is vital for the country’s well-being. Not only that, they are also convinced that the other party is very bad for the country. The Pew Research Center has been keeping track of how Democrats and Republicans view each other for some time now, and as their plot below demonstrates, American partisans are liking each other less and less.
As of April 2016, majorities in both major parties for the first time viewed the policies of the other party not just unfavorably, but very unfavorably. What exactly this means can be seen in the Pew Research bar charts below. In them, the responses in April 2016 are displayed both for all partisans of both parties and for those partisans with high political engagement.
Because of these extremely strong feelings, the American people can not ever expect cooperation between the parties until a large number of people on one side of the ideological divide or the other changes their opinions.
The Sovereign American People
Ultimately, the responsibility for our dysfunctional political situation must be borne by the American people themselves. At least so far, they are still sovereign in this country. They are the ones who can not form a clear national consensus on how we are to be governed. They are the ones who can not decide whether we should have more government or less. They are the ones who elect our Congress, our President, and our state and local officials.
Hopefully, the growing damaging impact of our problems might act to concentrate the minds of our people on what exactly causes those problems before that impact becomes more deadly. Or as Samuel Johnson once said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” My casual observation of people leads me to believe that rather than do some serious studying of society’s problems, most people would rather go to or view a sports event, go to a good movie, go to a bar for social or harder drinking, or read a good novel. It is not that people are stupid; they are simply not that interested. If they are not motivated to seriously study what is going on and to take a stand for an informed point of view, the impacts of our past bad choices will grow in lethality. I quote yet another important thinker from the past, Benjamin Franklin, taken from Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1743.
Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.