Almost everyone agrees that American politics today is utterly dysfunctional. Even more depressing is the likelihood that the 2012 elections will do little if anything to ameliorate the situation. Voters are angry and have focused their anger on throwing out the in party and bringing in the out party. In addition to holding the president’s party accountable for bad times, they often become infatuated with candidates who proudly proclaim their distaste for politics, politicians, and institutions, and who pledge their fealty to uncompromising, black-and-white positions. Is there any basis for thinking we can govern ourselves more constructively in the months and years ahead?
Earlier this year we published a book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, which pulled no punches on the primary source of the dysfunction. We argued that deep and abiding partisan polarization has created a serious mismatch between our parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. In a parliamentary system, the government is built on a majority in parliament and can put its program in place and then be held accountable by the voters. But in our system, legislative enactment of a president’s program can be undermined by a determined minority. Parliamentary-like parties in a separation-of-powers government are a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution.
But it’s even worse than that. The polarization between our two major political parties is not symmetric. Neither party is above political posturing and game-playing. But the Republican Party has gone beyond the usual and acceptable political maneuvering and cheap-shotting. It has veered sharply off track, both substantively and procedurally. With two wings, one ideological and the other ruthlessly pragmatic, putting short-term political gain ahead of urgent national problem-solving, it has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited policy regime stretching back to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
Our book recounts numerous examples of transparently opportunistic behavior by the GOP—among them abandoning and demonizing policies it embraced not long ago solely because President Obama is for them, regularly filibustering uncontentious issues and nominations simply to obstruct and take up precious time, and damaging the economic recovery by taking the debt ceiling hostage and then threatening to do it again. Republicans launched their unending political war against the President from the first day of his Administration, in the midst of an economic crisis, in single-minded pursuit of their goals—lower taxes, smaller government, and a restoration of what they consider to be traditional American values.
Elections are supposed to provide voters the means to punish such extreme and destructive behavior. That is the essence of democratic accountability. Unfortunately, the American political system, especially in its current state, makes that task exceedingly difficult. Take this November’s election. The recovery from the most severe financial and economic crisis since the 1930s has been painfully slow, with persistently high levels of unemployment, stagnant wages, and a decline in the net worth of households. Who will be held accountable? The President, because of the inadequacy or unsuitability of his policies, or the Republicans, for blocking much of what he proposed to stimulate the economy and for taking steps (such as immediate reductions in spending and threats of a public default) that almost certainly harmed the recovery? The former is more likely than the latter, in part because of the popular myth that the president controls to some significant degree the state of the economy. This leaves little scope for voter evaluations of the alternate plans proposed by the competing presidential candidates for dealing with our economic problems. In any case, as extensive scholarly research has shown, the small slice of the electorate who are genuine swing voters have the least amount of information to make such a considered judgment.
The quest for democratic accountability is further challenged by the separate elections and election calendars for the White House and Congress. Unlike parliamentary elections, in which a single vote for a member of parliament every three to five years provides a straightforward means of holding governments accountable, our system complicates that calculation and increases the likelihood of divided government in which polarized parties, one of which embraces a radical agenda, remain at loggerheads on the central issues confronting the country. Narrow presidential victories and slim, temporary majorities in Congress are the best results both Obama and Romney can reasonably anticipate.
The Elites and the Electorate
Is there any way out of this box after this election? First and perhaps most important will be for key opinion leaders in important institutions to step up and inform Americans about the nature of the problem and the policy consequences of continuing obstruction. By doing so, they can actually create political consequences for obstructionists and change their behavior.
This starts with the media. The new media environment created by the demise of traditional business models and the proliferation of journalistic outlets with strategies designed to attract niche audiences has intensified a focus on sensationalism and extremism and reinforced the tribal divisions between the parties. But the failure to educate the citizenry extends to traditional news organizations as well, where enormously talented individuals report, write, and broadcast under strong codes of professional conduct. The intense partisan environment, with media-watchdog groups on the left and right, has made editors and producers gun-shy when confronting a story such as asymmetric polarization. How do you help readers, listeners, and viewers recognize and understand this important and consequential development without appearing to have a partisan bias? Not easily, if at all. That’s why the radicalization of the Republican Party has garnered so little attention from traditional news organizations. The temptation (or directive) to seek professional safety by imposing balance—through the unfiltered presentation of opposing views or the requirement to say both sides are to blame for problems—often takes priority over capturing the real story: Who’s telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risk and to what ends? We don’t pretend it is easy to change this state of affairs. The risk is that the aggressive reporting and writing that we need can reflect opinions as well as facts. And opinion journalism is certainly not in short supply. But serious journalists have been wrestling with this risk for many years. They and their supervisors must acknowledge that an artificially balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to the public.
But the media are not the only actors who need to step up to the plate. The business community was almost wholly absent when critical decisions were being made that shaped its own future and the economy, in particular during the debt limit debacle in 2011. We talked to many members of Congress over the course of the painful fandango that led to the first downgrade of the United States’ credit rating in history; not one said that a prominent CEO or other captain of industry visited them specifically to warn against playing games with the debt limit or holding it hostage for political gain. At most, when a business leader saw a lawmaker for another purpose, the issue would be raised briefly as an aside. The absence of responsible public leadership by prominent members of the business community contrasts sharply with that during previous eras of economic peril.
The same phenomenon has played out in the contemporary debate over the looming “fiscal cliff.” We face the possibility of another serious blow to a weak economy at the end of the year without resolving a set of issues that include expiring tax cuts, damaging budget cuts (called “sequesters”), a possible government shutdown, and another debt-limit breach. Yet again, the business community has been AWOL, leaving obstruction and hostage-taking as acceptable norms.
We know that if powerful opinion leaders speak honestly and bluntly, political leaders will respond. Consider Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s comment as the debt-limit deadline drew near:
I refuse to help Barack Obama get re-elected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy…. If we go into default,
he will say that Republicans are making the economy worse and try to convince the public—maybe with some merit, if people stop getting their Social Security checks and military families start getting letters saying service people overseas don’t get paid. It’s an argument he could have a good chance of winning, and all of the sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy. That is very bad positioning going into an election.
McConnell made it clear that if a breach in the debt limit brought economic turmoil, and it would be blamed on his party and thereby damage the Republican brand, it was time to compromise and find a solution. The clear implication of his comments: In the absence of such political consequences…let it rip.
Another key group of opinion leaders who need to intervene is problem-solving conservatives in and out of politics—specifically, to put a dagger into the heart of Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge. This holy grail of the contemporary Republican Party—based on a deeply flawed and empirically discredited “starve the beast” strategy—has done more to erode the GOP’s commitment to fiscal probity and remove it from playing any constructive role in putting the country’s finances in order than any other single factor. Several prominent conservative Republicans have recently put their toes in the water—Senator Tom Coburn and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are two prominent examples. We were also encouraged by the comment made to Parade magazine by former President George H.W. Bush: “The rigidity of those pledges is something I don’t like. The circumstances change and you can’t be wedded to some formula by Grover Norquist. It’s—who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?” More should be encouraged to challenge the pledge by enlightened leaders in the business, nonprofit, and public sectors.
For their part, President Obama and the Democrats have been much too timid in confronting the whole idea of a tax pledge by aspiring and elected leaders. And bipartisan and nonpartisan groups have made little progress by avoiding such a confrontation to preserve a fiction of equivalence between the parties. The most critical step in reducing our political dysfunction is bringing the Republican Party back into the mainstream of American politics. The best way to kick-start that journey is killing the tax pledge.
Civic leaders also need to engage the public, especially to make it clear that nothing gets done in the American political system without having elected officials who revere their institutions, respect the regular order of parliamentary process, work to find constructive solutions that involve engagement—even compromise—with the opposition, and rely on facts to devise pragmatic answers to vexing problems—in other words, politicians, just like our Framers. If voters continue to be attracted to the siren song of those who disdain politics and politicians, experts and facts, and insist that there are easy, black-and-white answers to complex problems, our deep dysfunction will get worse.
Rewarding the Problem Solvers
In addition, we need to work vigorously in coming years to transform the political system from one where the smaller, extreme activist wings of the parties have inordinate influence over the terms and rhetoric of the debate, the nature of the candidates, and the outcomes of elections, to one in which a larger, more representative electorate emerges.
In our view, the United States needs to find ways to enlarge the electorate in primaries and general elections to move our politics from their current base-driven focus. Here, the Australian model is very attractive. For more than 80 years, Australia has had a system of mandatory attendance at the polls—registered voters are required to show up, but not to vote (they can submit unmarked ballots). Absentees can write a letter explaining why illness or travel or other legitimate excuses kept them away, but others are subject to a fine that is the equivalent of a minor parking ticket, roughly $20. In every election since implementation, Australia has had a turnout of over 90 percent. Australia combines mandatory attendance with preference voting, enabling voters to rank their choices.
High turnout is not an end in itself (the former Soviet Union had 98 percent turnout). But Australian politicians of all stripes say that knowing their party’s base will all be there, as will the base of the other side, requires them to focus on those persuadable voters in the middle. They do not emphasize the kinds of wedge issues, like guns or same-sex relationships, that American consultants fixate on to motivate the bases, but instead focus on the bigger questions, like the economy, jobs, and education, that drive the voters in the middle, and they avoid the kind of vicious campaign rhetoric that turns on the base and turns off the persuadables. Election campaigns remain rough and tumble but the dynamic is qualitatively different. And preference voting, where each ballot requires voters to rank all of the candidates for an office, with the preferences distributed until one candidate receives a majority of the vote, means that minor parties or independent candidates do not act as spoilers, the way Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan did here in 2000.
We are fully aware that mandatory attendance at the polls has little chance of being enacted in the United States in the near or medium term; Americans rebel viscerally against the idea of forcing people to vote, or even imposing a modest penalty if they don’t. But there are other ways to boost turnout. One is to expand the electorate using incentives instead of disincentives; we are very attracted to the idea of a Mega Millions lottery, where one’s lottery ticket is the voting stub. The lure of a major prize could and would motivate people to vote the same way the multi-million dollar Mega Millions prize motivated many to stay in line all night for a chance to purchase a lottery ticket. Another is to build much more citizen-friendly, comprehensive, and accurate voter-registration files, so that voters who are in fact registered are not wrongly turned away from the polls or forced to vote provisionally.
In addition we support the kind of open primaries that have been implemented in California and will be on the ballot in Arizona. Open primaries reduce the impact of fringe ideologues and would be even better if they were combined with preference voting. They are no panacea, but they show promise in encouraging the candidacies of more mainstream lawmakers, and protecting incumbents threatened with primary battles if they do not hew to ideological orthodoxy.
In the short run, what can voters do? We are not in the business of partisanship, of recommending one party over another. But voters can use a different screen: Which candidates are problem solvers, and which ones will continue to act reflexively to obstruct compromise and constructive policy action? Which candidates boast that they are not politicians—meaning they don’t understand the value of institutions and the need to build coalitions to solve problems, and that they see the world in simplistic black-and-white terms? After applying these tests, reward the problem-solving politicians, and punish the obstructionist purists. That would be a good start.