Our federal government is not working. In truth, it has not been working for some time. In the voguish jargon of the ubiquitous pundit, it has become it “dysfunctional.” More bluntly it’s a train wreck.
The most obvious manifestation of its dysfunction is, of course, the recent 17-day shutdown. But that particular outrage was only one of 18 shutdowns we have endured since 1976. These repeated fiascoes inflict enormous damage to the health and welfare of the nation. No terrorist has harmed us more economically than we have harmed ourselves.
Bad as they are, however, the hated shutdowns comprise only one symptom of a broader problem: Our political system has gradually ceased to function.
Each new poll reveals deepening levels of public disgust and contempt for our politicians and the government they lead. The average American’s respect for the federal government almost weekly plumbs new lows. Congress now has an approval rating of 11 percent. Almost three in four voters believe most members of Congress should be replaced in the next election. Confidence in government likewise has sunk to an all-time low.
Clearly, we are undergoing a national crisis as serious as any our republic has confronted during peace time. But knowing we have a problem is not knowing what to do about it. And before we can know that, we have to understand exactly what the problem is.
Some believe we suffer from “divided government” run amok: The national government is split between Republicans and Democrats. But America has experienced repeated bouts of divided government throughout the 20th century — and the country, by and large, thrived through most of that period. Actually, some scholars and plenty of voters believe government works best when power is split among the parties.
In fact, the problem confronting American politics today is not divided government but divisive government. Our politicians have become fractious, peevish, querulous combatants more committed to destroying each other than solving the nation’s problems. Some — and far too many as evidenced by the most recent government shutdown — are willing to allow perhaps irreparable harm to the nation rather than seek consensus or compromise on the issues that divide them.
How exactly did we get to this desperate state of affairs? Arguably, there have been two fundamental shifts in national politics over the past odd 35 years that largely explains our present malaise.
One was a gradual shift back to the 1970s — first of political elites and then of the electorate itself toward an ideological style of politics. This growing ideological orientation inevitably eviscerated a once large, centrist political establishment. Simultaneously, it enlarged the proportion of the electorate that saw moderation and compromise as political evils to be erased from American politics.
The problem with the growing ideological orientation in our politics is important to understand. Ideological politics fits well in a parliamentary type government such as the United Kingdom, where power is unified and always held by a single party or coalition. But ideological polities is a fish out of water in a federal structure like ours with checks and balances and divided powers. Federal governments only work well when compromise and consensus can be reached, but ideological politics militates against compromise.
In effect, we have transformed much of our politics into a parliamentary style while maintaining the underlying federal structure created by the Constitution. Not surprisingly, this has introduced an almost schizoid frenzy into our politics that manifests itself in confrontations such as the recent government shutdown.
But growing ideological politics is only part of the problem, and not the main malignancy now threatening our political system. That distinction belongs to an arcane process known as “redistricting,” which allows state legislatures to “redraw” the geographical configurations of congressional districts every 10 years to conform to shifting populations among the states.
The ultimate contact sport in American politics, reapportionment has been used irresponsibly by both parties going back to the 1960s. They “gerrymander” new congressional districts into bizarre geographic configuration designed to make congressional seats “safe.” The practice was accomplished mostly by shoving so many Democrat or Republican voters into a given district that the district is no longer competitive. It’s “safe” for one party or the other.
This gradual accumulation of safe seats over many decennial censuses has all but destroyed political competition for many congressional races while contributing to the growing polarization of American politics.
Most recently, national Republicans have had the best of it. They have won control of enough state legislatures to allow them to gerrymander 30 to 40 districts so thoroughly that their incumbents are now accountable only to a small clique of extremists —a clique more than willing to take the country off the cliff for the sake of their ideology.
The problem then is so portentous for the nation: a growing ideological split in national politics, exacerbated by a decades old effort by both parties to use the decennial census to gerrymander competition out of congressional elections.
But what is the solution?
The ideological tilt to our politics is clearly a problem, but one we must learn to live with or live through. That is something the nation can do, indeed has done, during other periods of ideological turmoil dating back to the founding of the republic. As long as we maintain competitive elections and democratic processes, the most rigid ideology will eventually yield to consensus and compromise.
The larger problem is the gerrymandering. It threatens to destroy the very compromise and consensus that makes national government work. Decades of gerrymandering have insulated a significant proportion of Congress from accountability to the general electorate of their district.
Consequently, only if the unwise gerrymandering of past decades is rolled back will truly competitive and representative districts come about. And only competitive and representative districts will assure more accountable politicians, and less extreme partisanship.
Fixing this problem will be neither easy nor swift. Under the Constitution, restoring functional apportionment of congressional seats cannot begin until the next decennial census in 2020 — some seven years into the future. And even then it will not happen if the American people and media do not demand it be done.
We do have a choice: We can continue to watch national government slide into utter dysfunction — or we can fix it. It doesn’t seem to be a hard choice.