Virginia Tech® home

Who can right the Ship of State?



Authors as Published

Elizabeth Drew, the long-time Atlantic and New Yorker Washington correspondent, who, at 77 remains a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, this week wrote an article for that periodical that neatly summarized the major trends now shaping United States politics. She concluded her effort by noting the American people collectively must call for change to address meaningfully the current challenges confronting our regime and nation:

In the end only the members of the electorate can restore the institutions that make our democratic system work, starting with the next chance they get (September 26, 2013, p.64)

This hopeful truism in fact represents the lone mechanism now available to address the difficulties currently confronting our governance, which include at least the following:

  • An increasingly radical Republican Party caucus at all scales of government, a share of whose members are now calling for the United States to default on its debt obligations, refusing to negotiate in good faith on the national budget and steadfastly seeking ways to “defund” laws/programs that do not accord with their political views (typically on amorphous grounds of “spending” or “affordability”),
  • Many state legislatures, also led by GOP members (27 Statehouses are Republican dominated), now are passing laws aimed deliberately at making access to the polls more difficult for selected groups of targeted citizens to lower their voting rates, to advantage that party’s candidates,
  • One Republican candidate campaigning to be attorney general of Texas has publicly suggested his state could survive as an independent country should the nation suffer an economic collapse and that he would prevent President Obama from “interfering” in the state should he be elected. The point is not that he is a crackpot, but that he is seeking election to an important office in a major state and evidently believes it electorally useful to issue such wild declarations,
  • Republican party leaders at all levels of governance are now simply refusing to legitimate federal law and policy on the basis of often deluded, conspiratorial or quasi-conspiratorial claims concerning the intentions of national action and/or simply denying reality when it suits their partisan purposes, or it can rally their constituencies or serve their ideological beliefs (e.g., the Missouri legislature’s recent vote to “nullify” federal gun laws, which did not survive the Democratic governor’s veto; many GOP officials’ arguments that there is no such thing as climate change; or the fanciful contention that many Republican leaders embrace that the United Nations can control United States policy-making). In addition, one may cite the efforts in several GOP controlled-state legislatures to pass laws “preemptively” prohibiting the use of Sharia law (never in prospect anywhere in the U.S.). Finally, an apparently new favorite talking point among many of these elected officials is an argument that President Obama has committed or is “perilously” close to taking actions (always vaguely asserted) that require his impeachment.

This list could be extended but, at minimum, it suggests that these lawmakers have adopted extreme beliefs and mobilization strategies. One may debate whether many of them actually believe the ideas they peddle or are simply using them to stir their core constituencies, who sadly, often do believe them. And that is the point. These citizens represent a minority of U.S. voters, but they vigorously hold those views and they go to the polls in state and local elections that otherwise attract low turnouts. These voters are key to primary (and sub-national government) election outcomes, and for GOP legislators as a result. Moreover, their frequent extremism is amplified by the fact the House of Representatives and state legislative districts in which they reside have been strongly gerrymandered to ensure dominance by their party. Indeed, for example, most knowledgeable analysts are now predicting that only 35 House races of the 435 House seats nominally in contest, will actually be competitive in the November 2014 national election. These facts can make a relatively small number of extreme voters very important. What is more, gerrymandering continues apace and, it is now clear, will proceed with increased ferocity in Southern states dominated by the GOP so long as the central federal oversight provision of the Voting Rights Act is not in force and national lawsuits are unable to prevent such action.

One might well contemplate, too, how much the Republican Party is itself responsible for this difficult scenario by systematically reinforcing the fears of its faithful for some decades, as I highlighted in my last column. The party has done this by directing those apprehensions and concerns to an attack on governance itself and to the pretense that since voters cannot control those supposedly nefarious and always ill-advised decision processes directly they must elect individuals who will dismantle them on their behalf. And these relatively small groups of voters have adopted this view en masse and have voted accordingly.

We are now confronting the results - a polity unable to frame a budget for itself, laws and policymaking directed at specters, empty posturing and fears rather than reality, lawmakers who publicly indicate they do not care about the implications or impacts of their beliefs and actions for the states or nation and other citizens they serve as a matter of supposed “principle,” churlish and worse accusations against any official who might disagree with them, including, notably, members of their own party, and a near absolute unwillingness to compromise.

At one level, pundits of all stripes appear to be caught up in the frenzy this scenario represents, either offering arguments that echo or reinforce its imaginary realities and their implications for policy processes and decision-making or critiquing those claims in equally vociferous ways. But, of course, however oddly fascinating these flights of fancy may be, they do not result in governance, but instead in its breakdown. Our nation’s Founders designed multiple structural impediments into our regime to allay and hopefully prevent the tyrannical usurpations they correctly understood as ever a potential with popular sovereignty. These carefully designed requirements originally included property and age prerequisites for office and the franchise, indirect election of the Senate, the federal system and a bi-cameral legislature. In addition to these structural attributes of the regime, the Founders implicitly relied on the civic virtue, soberness and deliberation of elected leaders. The Framers hoped that the requirements for office and the vicissitudes of standing for election would result in individuals seeking posts who would care deeply about the regime and the freedom it represents as well as their own reputations and fame sufficiently to discipline their ambitions in favor of the commonweal. But with the election and reelection of a cadre of extremists to many state offices and legislatures and the same in the U.S. Congress, especially in the House, and with gerrymandering successfully protecting their seats, many of the structural checks and balances the framers designed to protect against extremism have now broken down in practice.

The results of this change in our politics have already been well nigh catastrophic. The federal courts are in crisis because Republicans in the Senate have refused during the Obama administration even to debate many possible appointees and the workload for sitting judges meanwhile continues to grow. Similarly, many important executive posts have gone unfilled because GOP leaders see it as in their partisan interest to prevent the work the appointees would do. Again, this list could be lengthened. The costs and consequences for the public’s business have been real and continue to accrue. Moreover, as noted, the nation does not have a budget, and many states (and the GOP House of Representatives, too) are attacking, on ideological grounds, the most vulnerable members of their populations, including the unemployed, the poor and the elderly, by eliminating or diminishing assistance to them or ensuring that existing short-term supports are not extended. Governors and legislatures in Republican-dominated states have also actively campaigned against unions and sought to break those that remain, thereby weakening an important political counterweight to capital and business in public policymaking. The result is a much more uneven firmament in those states in which, and whose, interests are considered in lawmaking.

In sum, the current scenario confronting governance in our regime is one the Founders could never have foreseen in its particulars, but one in principle they well knew could arise from the dangers always latent in popular self-governance. Oddly, and perhaps more unexpectedly, a minority of the nation’s citizenry, and one political party now largely in their thrall, have created our current national situation by adopting the positions they have and by electing radically minded ideologues to positions of authority at all scales of governance. That is, Elizabeth Drew is right. Only those voters who have so far not been engaged and who could recast the playing field by voting for less extremist lawmakers in appropriate elections can change this difficult self-imposed scenario. A minority of the American people has played a large role in creating the current governance crisis and only a larger share of the citizenry can right the proverbial ship. While that now seems unlikely, at least for the 2014 election, the people united remain the nation’s best, and increasingly only, hope for any change in our presently potentially ruinous course.

Publication Date

September 15, 2013