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Democracy in Dysfunction - Is There a Way Forward?


In my post on Friday, I asserted a premise that I expected and hoped would be provocative—that the bad guys have won. I used three cataclysmic events in American history (the Lincoln assassination, the JFK assassination, and 9/11/2001) to argue that the perpetrators of this deeds would likely pleased to see the manifestations of their actions.

I received some helpful reader feedback. In response to my contention that a two-term JFK presidency would have likely brought benefits to our society, Howie K. wrote, “I am not sure that JFK would have been able to pass Medicare and great society legislation as Johnson. But I wholly agree with your thesis that the bad guys are affecting us negatively and maybe winning.”

Andy R. stated that, “JFK's assassination may have led to Nixon in some way, but it also led to the landslide that brought about Great Society legislation. It is true that the Nazis won a great deal. It is also true that Europe hasn't had a major war since. Did the 911 terrorists win? Is their cause any better off? Was western society mortally wounded and has Islam prospered as a result?”

Thanks, Howie and Andy, your thoughts and pushback. In my Friday post, I stated that all of this is pure speculation. In any case, my focus is not on the perpetrators and their goals, but rather on our country’s reactions. After each event, our society had choices to make, and in most cases, we chose the ones that weakened and divided us: segregation, violence, and racial hostility over expansion of rights; a war on the poor rather than a war on poverty; and military incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq rather than a collaborative effort to improve international relations. And now our political system is an exercise in dysfunction.

Our country’s leaders have made positive choices as well. We defeated secessionism, ended slavery, overcame fascism, and, despite setbacks, expanded civil rights overall. But this is why our continued missteps are so disheartening.

Susan Rice, former National Security Advisor and UN Ambassador, explained the impact of our current dysfunction, stating, “Our political polarization hampers our ability to tackle important national issues, whether immigration, infrastructure, timely budgeting or closing Guantánamo. . . America’s adversaries exploit the vulnerability created by our dysfunctional democracy.” Rice asserted that these divisions must be approached “with the urgency a wartime adversary warrants.”

Get it? This is critical. In my last post, I promised to share some thoughts about what we can do about it, so here goes.

I start with the US Congress. There is a reason that the Constitution puts Congress, and not the President, in Article I. My message to Congress is, “Start acting like Number One. Reclaim your role as the legislative body you were intended to be.”

An article about congressional gridlock quotes Rick Nolan, a Minnesota congressman who served over 30 years ago and who won election again in 2012. Nolan “noted that bills once went to the floor, were open for amendment, then passed after input from both parties. Now, leaders bring fully formed legislation to the floor with little or no opportunity to change it.” Indeed, recent experience shows that committee hearings are opportunities to grandstand rather than improve legislation, bipartisanship is lacking on many congressional bills, elected officials act in the interest of their base voters and not the country as a whole, and life in Congress is an endless cycle of fundraising for the next election.

A second area to focus is on the norms of democracy. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard, have recently published a book, How Democracies Die, which shows that functioning democracies are sustained as much by unwritten norms as by any written constitution. The two norms that the authors emphasize are mutual toleration (in which politicians accept their opponents as legitimate) and forbearance (self-restraint in the exercise of power).

Let’s build on this premise. We need norms of political behavior and governance to sustain us. I start with the two norms outlined by Levitsky and Ziblatt and then add my own suggestions. None are perfect, but I share them as a starting point for conversation:

  1. Politicians on all sides should actively seek to moderate and elevate their tone and language. Assume best intentions, and speak generously even of your political opponents.

  2. Elected officials should strive to exercise restraint. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Ask: is this action good for the majority of the country? Who will be hurt by this? Will this action heal or exacerbate divisions.

  3. Congress must commit to being a co-equal and assertive branch of government. It should seek to become more of what it was in the past—a functioning body that seeks effective legislation through deliberation and study, and that checks the Executive when appropriate.

  4. To become law, all bills must be sponsored and passed by representatives from both major parties.

  5. States must draw district lines based on population distribution and other non-partisan factors.

  6. Political parties should mutually agree on an equal system of public campaign financing, with limits on contributions.

You say I’m crazy. Neither party will go for these ideas. For the Republicans, who control all branches of federal government, and most state governments as well, this would be tantamount to unilateral disarmament, right?

Point taken. However, in the not too distant past, the Democrats held all the levers of power just as securely. We lurch from party to party, from one extreme to the other. To provide more national stability and to guarantee relevance even in times out of power, both parties should seriously consider norms like these, even when they are in the majority.

But who’s to say I’m right? In the spirit of discourse and democracy, I ask my readers for your thoughts: Do you agree that we need a set of norms to guide political practice? Do you agree or disagree with my suggestions? What recommendations do you have?

I hope to hear from you. Maybe you’ll get your own plug in my next post.

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