Two veteran political scientists, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, authors of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism," alerted us again last week that gridlock is no way to govern.
Having watched Congress and national politics for nearly 40 years, Mann and Ornstein have become increasingly more critical of the increase in hyper partisanship, which they see as unmatched in the past century of American history. A major tenet of their analysis is that there is a fundamental mismatch between our governing structure and American political parties. Simply put, they argue that we already have “checks and balances” built into our governance system and that by adding a layer of partisan activism the result is likely to be gridlock not governance. Federalism is an additional design feature which despite several benefits increases the potential for gridlock.
While reforming current party-based elections by adopting “top two primaries” or by reforming Congress by requiring more voting and less partisan talking are promising ideas, they are unlikely to be adopted in the near future. In the meantime, there are social practices contributing to hyper partisanship in America today that can be addressed.
Increasingly, Mann and Ornstein and other political observers describe our political differences as a form of tribalism where people are activated to instinctively dig in when confronting a political decision rather than calmly seeking reason and evidence to think it through. Jonathan Haidt describes this process in "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion." (Watch a presentation of the book from CSPAN.) Haidt argues that we do literally see past one another because the opposing arguments just do not register in our minds.
Due to television and the Internet, there may be just too much politics all around us, all the time. We are overwhelmed with so many campaign ads and mailers, so many news briefs and bulletins, and so many false claims that even the most informed citizens can hardly keep up and make sense of it all.
Additionally, most people don’t like to see conflict and arguments, don’t like to be called out for not knowing what the Simpson-Bowles Commission was, or for not knowing what percent of GDP is collected in taxes. Therefore, rather than striving to become informed, active citizens, many people tune out or become foot soldiers in the hyper-partisan war of words. We need to change this.
Four nonpolitical changes will help:
- We all need to quit repeating half-truths and false statements when discussing, err arguing, politics. While not totally acceptable, the “win at any cost” sentiment allows political people to make up stuff that sounds good. There should be a code of ethics for candidates and voters that we strive to tell the truth.
- From kindergarten on up, student education should demonstrate substance, not style, in student council elections and debate competition. Give students real choices concerning relative secondary decisions such as the order of lunch and recess and the student council election will mean more than who is most popular. From the very beginning students are exposed to elections that are not very serious.
- Citizens must learn how to be involved in group decisions as part of their basic education. Compromise is time-consuming and hard. Partly because decisions and elections are seen as contests, everyone wants to win, and our political supporters are happy when we do, so consensus decision-making needs to be learned in church organizations, school boards, state legislatures and then moved on up to the Congress. When citizens prefer not to be directly involved in self-government, and distrust those who are, the legitimacy of the political system is questioned.
- Journalism needs to focus more on substance rather than simply being first to report the story, even if it's not quite right. Paradoxically, instant communication and more access to more information seem to have shortened the gestation time of news reporting rather than increasing the rigor for accuracy and validity. The journalistic tradition of focusing on the horse race aspect of campaigns and elections rather than on governance substance only reinforces what is already a short-sighted political process.
Citizenship has been allowed to become too easy. As is well-captured in the inscription around the Missouri Capitol rotunda (from President George Washington’s Farewell Address): “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened.” Active, informed citizens are required to reduce the hyper-partisanship and gridlock politics that has captured the nation’s capitol.
David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.