i·de·ol·o·gy — the body of ideas reflecting the social views and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
Yes, though I think the #1 deepest chasm was just before the Civil War. In 1856, MA Sen. Charles Sumner was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor by SC Rep. Preston Brooks, after Sumner called one of Brooks’ relatives a “pimp for slavery.”
While praying we never approach that kind of vitriolic fever pitch again, we certainly can’t deny there is polarization in America’s political arena today.
The Political Quotient test I previously brought to your attention has 40 questions that illustrate this polarization with real-life legislative examples. Each question presents the essence of a prominent congressional vote in 2009 using an objective description, and then asks you how you would have voted if you were in Congress. Each question also shows the actual vote. Nearly all of them were decided entirely along party lines, or nearly so.
To me, there’s just no doubt that Congress is extremely polarized on nearly every issue.
In Part 1 of this series of articles, I presented excerpts from the 2011 book That Used To Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, which attributed the polarized atmosphere in Congress to politically-biased gerrymandering of Congressional District boundaries, and to extreme candidates being selected by overzealous voters in primary elections. The authors asserted that politicians elected through these processes are extreme and uncompromising, but that the general election voters are much more moderate. The authors’ implication was that there is a sizeable quantity of moderate centrists whose demands for compromise are being ignored by the rabid politicians (mis-)representing their interests in Washington.
In Part 2, I presented evidence to disprove their two theories about the reason we have ideologically extreme politicians in Washington: partisan gerrymandering, and exaggerated extremism among primary voters. Some was evidence I compiled and analyzed myself, and some was from two excellent articles by Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz that I hope you took time to read. My judgement was those articles were objective and forthright, not spun or cherry-picked.
Here in Part 3, I will wrap up by telling you what the overarching thesis of That Used To Be Us turned out to be, which helps reveal why the authors were slanting their analysis so noticeably, in my opinion.
Chapter 15 of That Used To Be Us is called Shock Therapy. Here are some excerpts from pages 332-334 that present the culmination of Friedman’s and Mandelbaum’s rationale:
“…the United States needs a politics of the ‘radical center.’ This may sound like a contradiction of terms, but it isn’t. The policies necessary to meet America’s challenges are centrist in that they fall…somewhere in the considerable space between what have become mainstream Democratic and mainstream Republican positions. People in the middle – centrists – are often called moderates, implying that they are lukewarm about everything. But they need not be weak-willed people who wish to befriend everybody, offend nobody, and change nothing.”
“…we need to overcome or change the perverse political incentives that now keep such ideas and candidates promoting them on the fringe.”
“The only way around all these ideological and structural obstacles is a third-party or independent candidate….”
Can you see why the authors earlier tried so hard to build an impression that our elected representatives have abandoned the voters in the middle? They want to portray the center as outnumbering the entrenched left and the entrenched right, to make an electable third party candidate seem like an opportunity that is there for the taking…just reach out, grab it, and it’s yours – no problem.
I actually agree with much of their assessment of the current political situation. I agree with this, for example:
”Our political system is stuck. It is under the sway of powerful special interests that work for policies that are at best irrelevant to and at worst counterproductive for the urgent present and future needs of the United States. The two parties are so sharply polarized that they are incapable of arriving at the deep, ideologically painful compromises that major initiatives, of the kind required to meet the major challenges America faces, will require.”
But I believe it is naive wishful thinking when Friedman and Mandelbaum propose that mainstream liberal and conservative voters could abandon their party affiliation en masse to suddenly propel a third-party candidate into power. The risk of this leap is great, because if you fall short of the goal in such a gambit, the result is often that the actual winning candidate is worse than the one you were dissatisfied with in the first place.
Case in point: In 1992, I voted for Ross Perot because I wasn’t fully satisfied with G.H.W. Bush. As a “Reform Party” candidate, Perot actually had a pretty good showing: 19% of the popular vote nationwide, mostly at the expense of Bush who got 38%. But Perot secured exactly 0 electoral votes. And what was my reward for voting as I did? Bill Clinton, who was my third choice, got 43% of the popular vote and won in an electoral landslide, 370-168. I learned the hard way, and I’m not making that same mistake again, ever.
To quote conservative Denver 850KOA radio host and columnist Mike Rosen, a significant mentor of mine: “Ideology is about ideas; politics is about winning elections.” Please click on the link and read Mr. Rosen’s column on this subject. I cannot phrase it any better.
I’m fairly certain that Friedman and Mandelbaum also understand this political reality. I think it’s very likely that, given the growing number of Americans that want a third party to emerge, the authors were simply throwing raw meat to that crowd because they recognized a lucrative book-selling opportunity. Hey, that’s American ingenuity in action!
Protection from the tyranny of a slim majority
Now, I want to finish by turning back to the title of this article: “Dysfunctional Federal Government – Or Is It?”
We certainly have divided government. We certainly have gridlocked government.
But I will stick my neck out here and contend that we do not have dysfunctional government.
What I found in Part 2 was that Congress is deeply polarized because America itself is deeply polarized. Under such conditions, lacking a clear numerical mandate, should either side really be allowed to ignore the other and use their paper-thin majority to cram distasteful policies down the throats of the paper-thin minority? Putting partisanship aside, I say no. In times like these, Americans need time to sort these things out in their own minds, and in their own family and community situations. When a larger majority emerges with a debate-tested rationale, the way forward will become clearer.
In the Federalist #10 (“The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”), James Madison asserted that a government founded upon liberty and freedom will inevitably encounter spirited disagreements between factions. He said that to cure this by squelching our liberty or homogenizing the opinions of Americans by discouraging individualism would be a fate worse than the disease. Madison said that “the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.” He went on to point out that, whether a faction’s views are within the majority or the minority, the faction would be “unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.” Madison even pointed out that this sorting-out process may, at times, “clog the administration, it may convulse the society….” Yet he was confident that even a Republic that has grown very large will still be well served by the representative form of government established by our Constitution.
In summary, since there truly is a great ideological divide in the fabric of America today, I believe it is perfectly appropriate that we’re presently gridlocked in the federal government over the proper direction for our future. The Founders had studied the fallacies and shortcomings of previous forms of government, and built into our Constitution the safeguards needed to make us slow down and deliberatively resolve important issues, no matter how long it may take.
By appearing “dysfunctional,” our system is functioning exactly the way our Founders intended it to.
Afterthought: In 2012, we’re forked
Now allowing my partisanship to show:
We face a critical fork in the road in November 2012, which I believe is dangerously near a fiscal cliff. The fork offers a choice of two ways down from these nosebleed heights of national debt: a left turn towards a full-speed-ahead crash of our economy, or a right turn towards a longer-term managed easing off the government spending accelerator pedal and a return to policies for healthy growth in our economy.
I believe the logical choice is clearly to follow the American tradition: Drive on the right side of the road.
Or as one of Clint Eastwood’s characters once said, “Right turn, Clyde.”