Why Washington Isn’t Working

This is hardly a new or unique observation, but it is increasingly apparent that things in our Capitol and our political process simply are not working.

I’m not talking about any specific issue, though some would point to immigration, or guns, or infrastructure, or deficits and the debt. Too many are content with just blaming those in the other party or of the opposite ideology—a very convenient cop-out. To me, while there is plenty of blame on each side, the problem is more systemic. The Founding Fathers weren’t wrong in what they set up, but our system has evolved into something very different from what they had in mind, and into something that isn’t working.

While thinking about this column, I read an incredibly thoughtful (as always) Ron Brownstein column in The Atlantic. In talking about guns and immigration, Brownstein argues, “Both issues illuminate the central divide between the parties as their political coalitions have sorted and separated along lines of race, generation, education, and geography. On both matters, Republicans are championing primarily non-urban and predominately white constituencies that want fewer immigrants and more access to guns. Democrats reflect a mirror-image consensus: Their voters coming from diverse urban areas usually support more immigrants and fewer guns.”

Brownstein goes on to say, “The predictability of deadlock testifies to the power of the intertwined cultural, demographic, and economic divide now separating urban and non-urban America—and how closely the nation’s partisan split follows the contours of that larger separation. It also shows how population distribution patterns that concentrate Democratic strength in the House of Representatives into the largest urban areas, combined with the small-state bias that accords each state two senators regardless of population, elevate rural over urban priorities in these polarized debates.”

While I agree wholeheartedly with Brownstein’s thesis, I would also argue that the situation is exacerbated by other trends taking place in our political process and within each party. There is a certain type of politician, a kind of legislator who is ideologically and temperamentally open to compromising with those of the other party or a different ideological bent. But our political system has evolved to a point where those most likely to forge consensus are being winnowed out. In a bad year for a party, those representing states and districts that are most centrist, those members least inclined to dig in their heels, are usually the first ones to lose their seats. The most ideological and intransigent politicians tend to come from safe states and districts, and tend to be the least predisposed to work out a compromise.

Part of the sorting-out process that Brownstein talks about is ideological within the two parties. The days of the more moderate and conservative Democrats who served as a ballast are gone as the Democratic Party has moved left, making it difficult for such Democrats to win their primaries. The same can be said for moderate and liberal Republicans who can’t win nominations on their side. The voters most likely to vote for someone inclined toward consensus have abandoned their parties or pulled back from the process, leaving primaries dominated by the most ideological and least tolerant of compromise.

Then layer in the increasingly ideological nature of media coverage today. The days when “media” meant the three broadcast networks and their local affiliates, three news magazines, two wire services, and your local newspapers are long over. Now many people see as a “trusted news source” not the modern-day Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley but rather someone who shares their values and ideologies, whether it is Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity. We are creating ideological silos that take people who are predisposed to be liberal or conservative and make them much more so. With these increasingly narrow tendencies comes more cultural and ideological intolerance, again working against nominating and electing those most inclined to forge a compromise.

Of course this view doesn’t fit well into the narrative that everything is the other party’s fault; it requires each side to take some responsibility and culpability for our systemic dysfunction. It also doesn’t fit in with the mind-set that one can never lose a contest, but can only be cheated out of something. Too often we can’t envision simple disagreement. Instead, anyone who does not share your point of view must be evil, corrupt, or ignorant.

Within organizations and interest groups this comes into play as well. Often members are more willing to accept defeat than to tolerate a compromise—because compromise can be seen as a sign of weakness or lack of principle.

When I hear voters lambast politicians as the root of all evil, I am always tempted to suggest that if they want to find fault, they should look into the mirror. No members of the House of Representatives are appointed; very few senators or governors are either. Voters put them there, and if voters don’t like what their elected officials are or aren’t doing, they should accept some responsibility themselves. As for what can get us out of this mess, I confess to be at a loss. There has to be a solution, but it escapes me.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on February 23, 2018