The Crisis of American Politics

Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Paul A. Barresi JD, PhD

American politics are in crisis.  This crisis has three parts.  The first is the structure of the government created by the framers of our Constitution more than two centuries ago.  The framers -- leading lights of the gentry for whom democracy meant mob rule -- designed a fragmented, republican system of government intended to make it hard for majorities of yeomen -- the ordinary people of their day -- to achieve their own goals in the national policy-making process.  This design was motivated by the serious political and economic problems that the framers perceived to have arisen in the United States under the Articles of Confederation, which from 1781 to 1789 served as the nation's first constitution.  Under the Articles, most governmental power was reserved to the states, which in turn constitutionally vested that power primarily in the hands of the majorities of yeomen who controlled the state legislatures.  The framers proposed to create a much stronger national government than existed under the Articles, and to structure that government in a way that would guard against its capture by democratic majorities of yeomen.
 From the inside, this government looks like a system of multiple veto points.  From the outside, it looks like a system of multiple access points.  The many access points make it much easier for small but well organized minority interests than for large but poorly organized majority interests to influence policy outcomes.  The many veto points make it much easier to stop proposals for policy change than to ensure that they become law.  The easiest thing to do in this system is for small but well organized interests to stop proposals for policy change.  The hardest thing to do is for large but poorly organized interests to ensure that those proposals become law, especially to the extent that they are radical. 

 More than two centuries later, almost all of the framers' system remains in place.  Moreover, the congressional rules and traditions that have evolved since ratification of the Constitution, as well as the creation of both a multi-layered federal court system in the eighteenth century and a process for executive-branch rule-making to flesh out and implement congressional legislation in the twentieth, has made the national policy-making process even more fragmented and republican than the framers intended.  The result has been to make it even more effective at achieving the framers' anti-democratic goals. 

 Paradoxically, both American political culture and the federal electoral process have become much more democratic since the framers' time, thus giving rise to the second part of the crisis of American politics.  It is true that pursuit of the public interest has remained the dominant conception of what politics should be all about since ratification of the Constitution.  What has changed, however, is the dominant conception of what the public interest is.  By the 1830s, the framers' conception of the public interest as a transcendent community interest to which only men in the highest ranks of the social hierarchy of their day could be privy had been eclipsed by a much more democratic conception, in which the public interest is merely the sum of the self-interests of the individual members of the community, which ordinary citizens are capable of identifying themselves  The dominant conception of who should rule has changed in similar ways.  The framers' belief that the gentry should rule has given way to a much more democratic conception, which leads nearly every candidate for public office to claim that he or she is more like everyone's next-door neighbor than the next.  At the same time, constitutional amendments, changes to state law, and the evolving practices of political parties have transformed the role of ordinary people in nominating and electing candidates to public office from a recurring bit part to an ongoing, starring role.  The Seventeenth Amendment, which provides for the direct election of Senators, the use of primaries and caucuses to choose nominees for President and Congress, and the transformation of the Electoral College from a deliberative body into a more or less mechanical means of reallocating the popular vote among presidential and vice presidential candidates on a state-by-state basis are just some of the innovations that have given ordinary people a much more central role in nominating and electing federal officials than anything imaginable in the framers' time.  Not surprisingly, this electoral and cultural democratization has given rise to equally democratic expectations on the part of majorities of American voters that they are likely to achieve their goals in the national policy-making process.  Except in rare circumstances, these expectations are doomed to be frustrated, primarily because the system of government designed by the framers was intended to frustrate them. 

 This unfortunate circumstance has set the stage for the third part of the crisis of American politics.  As routinely revealed by survey data, anecdotal evidence, and standardized testing, most Americans of all ages know very little about how or why our system of government works in the way that it does.  They tend to know even less about their own history and culture, and still less about societies other than their own.  At election time, these pervasive deficiencies render most voters unable to understand the issues or the candidates at anything but the most superficial level, and leave them extremely susceptible to being influenced by sound bites, campaign slogans, and negative political advertising, which in most cases are either meaningless or misleading.  Because most Americans do not understand how or why our system of government works in the way that it does, they become disillusioned and cynical about politics, attributing the frustration of their democratic expectations to widespread corruption, incompetence, stupidity, conspiracies, or other imaginary causes.  This alienation has a corrosive spin-off effect because the cultural and electoral democratization that has occurred since ratification of the Constitution encourages candidates for public office to pander to the electorate's ignorance.  One result is the "Washington outsider" syndrome, in which self-proclaimed national political neophytes clamor to be sent to our nation's capital to sweep out the many evils that voters imagine to be responsible for the frustration of their democratic expectations.  The result of sending such people to Washington to represent us has little impact the status quo, as the framers could have predicted, which only reinforces voters' disillusionment and cynicism. 

 Absent an overhaul of the Constitution that would align the structure of our eighteenth-century system of government with Americans' twenty-first-century expectations, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon, that system will continue to make it hard for majorities of ordinary people to achieve their goals in the national policy-making process.  The most viable option for mitigating the crisis of American politics notwithstanding this reality is to dispel the fog of ignorance that leads the overwhelming majority of Americans to misunderstand what is happening and why.  Doing so would require at least two things.  First, it would require a sustained commitment to reinvigorate civics education -- that is, the study of how to be a citizen -- at all levels of schooling nationwide.  Civics classes began to vanish from most public schools in the 1960s amid the political polarization provoked by the Vietnam War.  The commoditization of education at all levels that has occurred since the mid-1980s as part of a broader cultural phenomenon in which Americans have allowed their thinking about nearly all aspects of social life to be structured by metaphorical concepts drawn from economic theory and business only has made things worse.  Much worse.  We train our children to be workers, and socialize them to be consumers.  We do not educate them to be citizens, and have not done so for decades.  The results have been predictable, and profoundly self-destructive. 

 Dispelling the fog of voter ignorance that clouds the American political process also would require improvements to the quality of political reporting in the mass media.  Most Americans know what they think they know about government and politics as a result of their exposure to the mass media, especially television.  Unfortunately, reporters' level of political understanding is little better than that of the general population, which means that their work often obscures more than it reveals, more often than not merely reinforcing the voter ignorance that more knowledgeable reporting could help to dispel.  The infotainment that passes for political news in America is rarely enlightening.  For the most part it only deepens the gloom. 

 "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe," wrote H. G. Wells in the aftermath of the First World War, which heaped horror upon horror from Gallipoli to the Somme.  Nearly a century later, in a world beset by persistent poverty and social unrest, murderous ethnic conflicts and the virus of international terrorism, and global environmental challenges so profound as to threaten to overwhelm the capacity of human societies to cope, in which globalization can transform what once would have been localized political or economic tragedies into maelstroms with the potential to engulf the whole world, few tasks could be as urgent as producing a generation of Americans capable of functioning effectively as citizens of that world's only superpower.  What Thomas Jefferson observed in the balkanized world of his time is even more true in the globalized world of our own.  "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization," he wrote, "it expects what never was and never will be." 

Paul A. Barresi is Professor of Political Science and Environmental Law in the School of Arts and Sciences. 

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