Working as designed?

Published 5:21 pm Thursday, September 26, 2019

LaGrange resident

It’s painful to watch the performance of politicians on the national level, don’t you think? Words like “divisive” and “polarized” are used so routinely they’ve practically lost their impact. Everyone in Washington, D.C., seems emotionally anchored to accusations that their opponents are intractable, unreasonable and unwilling to listen. 

Although many see this as some sort of wide-spread leadership failure, I think the current lack of consensus on our national agenda is a predictable result of the constitutional process and has relatively little to do with the individual personalities in Congress, the Supreme Court or the White House. 

First, we need to relax the notion that we used to be much better at building consensus. We weren’t better. Despite party differences, it was easier for our elected officials to get along because they were essentially clones. If you were elected to national office in the post-World War II era, it was highly probable that you were a white male Christian of European descent who had served in the military. Today, 25 percent of members of Congress are women, 22 percent are non-white and only 20 percent have served in the military. There is far greater variability today around what defines an “average American” than there was 50 years ago, and that is reflected in our government and in our national debates. 

The second factor is that the Founding Fathers did not want a powerful national government and intentionally designed the legislative process to be cumbersome. In doing so, they ensured that laws on the national level must have national consensus. Presidential candidates make promises during the election cycle that are impossible to fulfill, simply because presidents do not have any constitutional power to unilaterally create laws. Any law must first pass through two different houses of Congress and then be approved or vetoed by the president. To override a veto requires a two-thirds majority in both houses. It is very hard to pass laws — by constitutional design. 

Finally, the news media has become splintered and, in some cases, divided along partisan lines. Years ago, when there were three major television networks, the national media, led by authority figures such as Walter Cronkite, played a positive role in helping the public understand key issues and build consensus. But the fragmentation of television into hundreds of channels, the relative weakness of legacy print media and the advent of social media that gives everyone a megaphone they can carry in their pocket contributes to divisiveness.

In 1856, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks assaulted Sen. Charles Sumner with a walking cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate. That crime was prompted by polarization over slavery, a polarization that eventually resulted in the secession of 11 southern states and the deaths of 620,000 Americans in the Civil War. Government polarization is not new. 

Maybe it’s time to stop pretending Washington will solve our problems and seek solutions elsewhere.