Dysfunctional Federal Government – Or Is It? (Part 3)

i·de·ol·o·gy  — the body of ideas reflecting the social views and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.

Are our elected officials dangling their feet over opposite rims of one of the deepest ideological chasms we’ve ever seen?

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.

But why?

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.

Wishful thinking

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.”

(Graphic credit)

(Photo credit)

About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control. https://necessaryandpropergovt.wordpress.com/
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11 Responses to Dysfunctional Federal Government – Or Is It? (Part 3)

  1. First, I just have to say that I admire your ability to write such thoughtful posts; I really get the feeling that you put a lot of effort behind them.

    I would like to comment on this, “I learned the hard way, and I’m not making that same mistake again, ever.”

    I too remember 1992 (despite the fact that I was only 8 years old!), and I can see how you would feel burned by that experience. However, I wonder at what point does voting for the “lesser of two evils” become a fruitless endeavor? Is there a point in which neither candidate would sufficiently represent your values enough in order to get you to reconsider a vote for either?

    I read Mike Rosen’s column, it is well written and I can see his points. However, I would humbly assert that it can be a bit of a short sided strategy, always just trying to avoid complete catastrophe, but nevertheless marching towards a government that doesn’t well represent you.

    Now, granted Obama IS an exceptionally bad president, which further bolsters your case. However, I believe the idea that third parties aren’t electable also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


    • Thanks for the compliments, EC. Yes I spend a lot of time. Since I’m such a tough critic and spin-checker of other people’s work, I try hard not to be the pot calling the kettle black. I invest time to give depth to my essays, and to pre-arm them against at least the easy attacks, if not the next tougher wave too. Trouble is, I’m having a tough time keeping up with my 2 articles-per-week goal.

      You are absolutely right that my advice to be wary of 3rd party candidates is a circularly self-defeating strategy. Your valid point is: “How can we ever get one elected if we’re too chicken to try?” I plead 110% guilty to that criticism. But I have given that aspect much thought, and I have a very well-considered defense of it.

      The difficult thing about “going for it” (meaning backing the long-shot candidate who is your favorite) is when you realize that most of the votes that your long shot candidate needs will come from your 2nd favorite guy. If it’s too much of a long shot, then the risk/reward ratio is not in your favor…not even close. The downside is too painful. Like Rosen said: “Holding out for all or nothing, they get nothing.”

      You also said “I wonder at what point does voting for the ‘lesser of two evils’ become a fruitless endeavor? Is there a point in which neither candidate would sufficiently represent your values enough in order to get you to reconsider a vote for either?” Good question…here’s my response:

      The Republicans took a lickin’ in 2006 and 2008, in part because they did indeed become nearly indistinguishable from the Democrats in their big spending / big government solution habits. (The reasons are MUCH more complex than that, but for this argument’s sake, let’s keep it simple.) They’ve taken a dose or three of castor oil from the Tea Party, and this time around I think they’re in a more austere frame of mind. The conservative electorate is going to give them another “probationary” chance, I feel. (Other than Gary Johnson — this year’s “long shot” gambit — what other choice do they have?) And I’m pretty confident that enough swing voters are sick of high unemployment and high gas prices that Obama will be a 1-termer.

      However, the real problem is in disciplining our conservative representatives to stay austere after they get elected. THAT’S where we need to focus our political energy. I don’t think I will ever have a problem believing fervently in the constrained vision. Our team’s biggest challenge is in making sure our players execute the game plan once they’re on the field, without impulsively improvising and showing off to the crowd because they learn to crave the sound of applause. Consistently advocating limited government is far less fun than being a liberal Santa Claus. Remember, that’s what I addressed in my article “How to Train Your Political Animal to Restrain Itself.”

      Thanks for participating, EC.
      – Jeff


      • I would agree with you and your sentiment in ““How to Train Your Political Animal to Restrain Itself”. Working from within the party can be very influential; Barry Goldwater was the precursor to Ronald Reagan, and ended up being a movement (which has since withered). I think a similar thing *might* be happening with Ron Paul, he certainly is inspiring the younger generations (myself included), but much of his message is anathema to more moderate and older generation Republicans. In 20 years, though, we may be seeing politicians associating themselves with Ron Paul the way that they name drop Reagan all the time.

        “The downside is too painful. Like Rosen said: ‘Holding out for all or nothing, they get nothing.'” This is certainly true of Libertarians, but I think that they also have an important message that gets overlooked: Don’t compromise your beliefs. Perhaps it’s just the existentialist artist in me, but that really resonates with me. The whole reason we have this federal Leviathan is because politicians were too eager to compromise too many times, leaving us with ineffective policy and an ever increasing tax bill.

        Working within the party is important, but at some point they need to stop being rewarded for their behavior. Actually, I think 1992 serves as a good example of this; shortly after, the Republicans won the House and ended up making the “Contract with America”, probably to try to woo back those Perot voters. They were punished for their ways, and they accepted the discipline and changed (somewhat).

        But your last paragraph is absolutely right on: Everyone who is concerned about government over-reach should be in contact with their Representatives and Senators and make your voice heard.


  2. Steph says:

    Jeff, great article! From where I sit here in red-as-blood Idaho, there is a lot of talk about writing Ron Paul in on the ballot in November. Whenever I hear it, I try to talk the person down off the ledge and see the reality of exactly what you state — a vote for Ron Paul is a vote for Obama! Or at the very least a vote against Romney. The folks I have these talks with have serious issues with me saying “a vote for Paul = a vote for Obama” due to the minor technicality that they aren’t exactly voting for Obama. Then I get called a pragmatist, to which I reply “well at least I’m not voting for Obama.” Clearly I make a lot of friends this way. 🙂 I think this is one example of how we as a society think TOO individualistic. All we think about is our little vote and there isn’t much strategy involved where there needs to be. Of course, all we can control is ourselves, but I think we need to think about the bigger picture as both EC and you allude to.

    I just wanted to chime in and say that I think you are so right on with your assessment of the showy athletes that forget they are playing a game to win. Do you think there is anything that could remedy this aside from what you mention in How to Train the Political Animal to Restrain Itself? (Great articles as well I will add!) Do you think electing those who have proven morals/integrity has merit as a solution?

    Thanks for the food for thought!


  3. luda says:

    I too voted for Ross Perot. Essentially casting my vote for something besides the current two party system. I am a moderate and like the way it was described above, “But they need not be weak-willed people who wish to befriend everybody, offend nobody, and change nothing.” My views and values cross the party lines. Sometimes I am aligned with Republicans and other times with Democrats. I wish politicans could survive by not being 100% aligned with their party and vote how their representative population would vote. Appreciate the thoughtful and thought provoking essays. I don’t have the enthusiasm or energy to do the research you do but appreciate being challenged by your thoughts.


    • Thanks for participating.

      I would venture to guess that you align to Republicans for their fiscal conservatism (if they’d stick to it once they get in office, like the freshman Tea Partyers in the House have so far), and perhaps you align with the Democrats for their advocacy for the truly needy people in America.

      If so, you might be interested in checking out a blog I found called “The Civic Arena.” Trying to figure out how to be compassionate to needy people without inadvertently incentivizing non-needy people to perpetually scam the welfare dole is one of the most vexing problems that conservatives face in their policies and political messaging.

      An author at “The Civic Arena” is focusing on the “compassion vs. national bankruptcy” dilemma much more insightfully than my analytical engineering personality equips me to do. You should check it out:


      – Jeff


  4. BradsDrift says:

    Jeff, Great work on this series…. very thought provoking. I understand all of the reasons for voting for a second best win. I also believe that working within the system is worthy and needed. In the meantime, my spirit will not allow me to vote for the lesser of two evils. Especially, when, for me… this year is REALLY hard to determine which evil is less! So I’m going to vote for who I want to! I would assert that if everyone did that (vote for who they want…not against who they don’t want)… that might affect change in and of itself. However, I also realize that may be too utopian.

    Again, I really appreciate your thoughts!


  5. Hmmm…assuming you’re talking about the presidential candidates:

    I wish I could understand what “evil” it is that people see when they examine Romney and Ryan using objective sources of info (not relying on the biased broadcast news media or listening to the ultra-biased speeches at the DNC). There’s a ton of misinformation being pumped into the media pipeline right now. For example, the Obama campaign is running commercials about Ryan’s budget plan that are based on his plan from a previous year. But his current plan incorporated changes he made in order to compromise with the Democrats. By continuing to ridicule his pre-compromise plan, they’re painting him as a heartless extremist who is unwilling to compromise. How fair is that?

    Brad, since you’re not being very specific about what your dilemma is, I will guess that the issue you’re struggling with most is how society should help the needy. That’s why I recommended that folks go take a look at Steph’s blog at http://thecivicarena.wordpress.com/category/steph/. She is articulately addressing this issue from a different angle than me.

    Anyway, if you’re willing to listen to a couple podcasts that factually describe in detail how Paul Ryan’s fiscal plans are being slandered, please try these:

    Mike Rosen Show, 850KOA Radio, Monday Aug 27th, 10-11am
    (Please listen to the whole 36:18.)

    Mike Rosen Show, 850KOA Radio, Monday Sept 10th, 11-12am
    (Please listen from the 21:30 mark to the end at 36:05.)

    What I’m observing in the campaign this year is: The Democrats are accusing Paul Ryan of wanting to end Medicare “as we know it.” Frankly, I am applauding him for that. Why? Because Medicare “as we know it” is headed for bankruptcy. By trying to change Medicare’s financial trajectory, Ryan is the rational one who’s trying to RESCUE it. He and Romney are actually being brave enough to put his overall entitlement reform plan DIRECTLY on the table as the centerpiece of the campaign, for all to see. It’s being demagogued to death (with commercials of a Ryan look-alike pushing Grandma’s wheelchair off the cliff). He’s getting vilified, but he’s the brave one who dares to actually trust the American populace to face these issues head on for a change, rather than do what most other politicians (of both parties) do…which is kick the can down the road perpetually. That’s what I meant in my reply to EC’s first comment, when I said “Consistently advocating limited government is far less fun than being a liberal Santa Claus.”

    We simply cannot keep borrowing money from our future offspring and spending it now…I believe that to continue to do so would be monumentally immoral. Entitlement programs must be trimmed to a level that is sustainable.

    – Jeff


  6. Steph says:

    I have a cousin that I go rounds with about this topic. It eventually comes down to us agreeing that people must vote their conscience. I say that first so you will maybe be less annoyed with everything else I am going to say. My cousin has an extremely hard time with how pragmatic I can be (we are both Christians) as she sides with you in the opinion that if everyone voted for who they “wanted” to vote for, maybe a third party candidate would get elected. I think there are many problems with this thinking but the biggest one is that freeing us all from our pragmatism and political strategizing isn’t magically going to get Gary Johnson or Ron Paul elected. If the people really wanted Ron Paul they could have had him at least the last two election cycles. Not to downplay his greatness, I really like him. But when it comes down to it, I am a social conservative through and through and I can’t sit idly by while Obama gets elected again.

    Like I said in my previous comment on this thread, I make a lot of friends with my “you should vote for Romney” approach. So, nice to meet you! I will be nicer next time, I promise. 🙂

    – Steph


  7. Here’s a related essay published today that I found very interesting:
    The Divided Era & the 2012 Election.

    – Jeff


  8. Today I found a great Op-Ed piece by syndicated conservative columnist George Will entitled Seeds of Our Dysfunction. It first appeared in papers nationwide on Oct 20th.

    While I recommend you read the whole piece, it contains a great passage that’s related to our discussion here:

    “America’s public-policy dysfunction exists not because democracy isn’t working but because it is. Both parties are sensitive market mechanisms, measuring more than shaping voters’ preferences. The electoral system is a seismograph recording every tremor of public appetite. Today, the differences that divide the public are exceeded by the contradictions within the public’s mind.

    “America’s bold premise is the possibility of dignified self-government — people making reasonable choices about restrained appetites. But three decades ago, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington postulated that America suffers regularly recurring political convulsions because the gap between the premise and reality becomes too wide to ignore.

    “Now Michael Greve, a constitutional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues: ‘We like to tell ourselves that all our constitutional stories must have a happy ending.’ The Founders’ foremost problem, Greve says, was debt. To establish the nation’s credibility, they needed to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. ‘We,’ Greve says, ‘merely have to return to it, if we can.’ “

    That’s a 3-paragraph-long superior explanation of what I said in one sentence: “By appearing dysfunctional, our system is functioning exactly the way our Founders intended it to.”

    – Jeff


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