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The dysfunction of American politics

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By Robert J. Samuelson
Monday, October 25, 2010

To its practitioners, politics is about power: getting it, keeping it and using it. But for the nation, the basic purpose of politics is to conciliate. If everyone agreed on everything, politics would be unnecessary. So would democracy and elections. A dictator could govern by universally accepted preferences and policies. Without consensus, politics is how we resolve our differences short of resorting to violence. One reason so many Americans are unhappy with politics today is that it has abdicated its central role. It doesn't narrow our differences; it exaggerates them.

There never has been -- as commentator Michael Barone warns -- a golden age when Americans basked in bipartisan harmony. Still, the present popular revulsion with politics seems particularly powerful. Consider some recent poll results: If given the chance, 48 percent of Americans would replace every member of Congress, including their own; only 11 percent have a "very positive" view of the Democratic Party, slightly better than the Republican Party (7 percent) and slightly worse than the Tea Party (12 percent); 77 percent of the public sees the parties "bickering more," a huge increase from 2009 (53 percent).

Some anger clearly reflects the depressed economy. The effects of the slump have been exceptionally widespread and personal. More than two-thirds of Americans report knowing someone who has lost a job. The impending election may relieve some disappointment. This is what elections are for -- to release discontent and permit change. Perhaps.

History, however, suggests skepticism. There's a regular cycle of disillusion. Immediately after the election, the victors are euphoric. But it's only a matter of time before they feel betrayed, while defeat had already demoralized the election's losers. Almost everyone is unhappy with political leaders, though often for different reasons.

Politics becomes dysfunctional in that leaders cannot command broad public support and differences of opinion widen. Legislation is often passed with only one party's support.

Congressional tactics have changed to frustrate bipartisanship, as Susan Davis writes in National Journal. Senate filibusters were once reserved for the most divisive issues -- race, conspicuously. Now filibusters are routine. From 1919 to 1960, cloture (the decision to end debate, now requiring 60 votes) was filed 27 times. From 2003 to 2006, when Republicans controlled the Senate, they filed cloture 130 times to break Democratic filibusters. Since 2007, when Democrats took charge, they've filed 257 cloture motions, Davis reports.

It's not that the public has become sharply polarized. In 2010, 42 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, 35 percent moderates and 20 percent liberals, reports Gallup. In 1992, the figures were 43, 36 and 17 percent. So there's a widening disconnect between the polarized political system and the less-polarized public. There are at least four reasons for this.

First, politicians depend increasingly on their activist "bases" for votes, money and job security (read: no primary challenger). But activist agendas are well to the left or right of center. So when politicians pander to their bases, they often offend the center. In one poll, 70 percent of registered voters said Republicans' positions were too conservative at least some of the time; 76 percent likewise thought Democratic positions often "too liberal."

Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to "save the planet," "protect the unborn," "reclaim the Constitution." When goals become moral imperatives, there's no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they're immoral. They're cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three.

Third, cable television and the Internet impose entertainment values on politics. Constant chatter reigns. Conflict and shock language prevail; analysis is boring.

Finally, politicians overpromise. The federal budget has run deficits in all but five years since 1961. The main reason: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise spending and cut taxes. To obscure their own expediency, both parties blame the other.

Politicians have always assailed one another. But the totality of these changes has altered the system's character. Many players have an interest in perpetuating disagreements and differences. Advocacy groups and their allies derive psychic rewards (a sense of superiority) and political benefits (more members and contributions) from demonizing their adversaries. Cable TV needs combat, not comity.

The impulse is not to govern from the center, which still represents most Americans, but from "the base." President Obama's health-care "reform" was a good example. Strongly favored by Democrats, it was consistently opposed by about half of Americans. To be fair, George W. Bush governed the same way.

The result is mass discontent. Overwrought expectations are regularly disappointed. Liberal and conservative bases feel abused because their agendas are rarely entirely enacted. They are too radical or unrealistic. The center feels frustrated that the bases' disproportionate power impedes action on long-standing problems (budgets, immigration, energy). Can next week's election resolve this stalemate? It seems doubtful.


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