Is politics broken?

It feels like it. Especially if you watch any news source and how they report on the proceedings of any capital in this country. I watched a montage of Republican US House members who were upset over Ukraine funding. Their statements all had one thing in common – a primary concern for their base of voters. When the base is the greater concern than what is best for the country, it’s legitimate to ask if politics is broken.

Of course, none of this is new. We just aren’t used to it in modern times. When was the last time a chamber was so closely divided? Any time a legislative body is closely divided, it amplifies the voices of those on the extremes because in order to pass legislation, you need every vote. And extremists can make demands that would never be able to make when a party has a cushion. When government is evenly divided, you end up with dysfunction, heated rhetoric, a tug of war, and very little meaningful action. It should cause legislators to reach for compromises – that would be the logical way of getting anything done. Except logic is a bad assumption when it comes to politics – especially politics with very small margins.

That’s because politics isn’t primarily about logic. It’s often about identity and what is valued.

Often politicians get a bad wrap. There are many elected officials who go to their respective capitals because they genuinely want to make a positive impact. I think it could be argued that the vast majority want that. These are people who are passionate about issues and how they impact people. Why else subject yourself to the electoral process? It’s a rough business and it requires a thick skin because you will be attacked verbally, your character will be assaulted, and there will be a constant effort to remove you through any means necessary by your opponents.

So is politics broken? I wonder what the founders would have thought about the current state of politics in the nation – I’m talking about the act of governing here. I think a lot of people think the founders had some kind of special knowledge in how they crafted the Constitution and form of government. I don’t buy that. They were flawed humans like everyone else. What they did know was that people were going to be in conflict. They came up with a way to deal with it – certainly imperfect, but a way. And they didn’t even deal with the biggest conflict the nation faced at the time – slavery. So even they had a difficult time following what they came up with. They punted. And kicking the can down the road lead to a devastating and destructive Civil War that I’m not convinced we’ve actually ever fully resolved. We could ask if politics was broken then too?

Was politics broken in the time that led up to the Civil War? Or during the Gilded Age? Was it broken around WWI and II, or the Great Depression? Was it broken throughout the 20th century when we finally recognized people’s rights in a variety of ways in spite of great resistance to efforts to recognize people’s rights? Was it broken after 9/11? Is it broken now?

I guess part of the answer depends on what you expect out of politics? Do you have an expectation that politicians are going to work through their differences and pass legislation that will make a positive impact for the country? Why do you expect this? Is our system of government set up that way? Our system is more designed to hinder efficient passage of legislation rather than move it along.

Politicians don’t just get to where they are magically. They are elected by people in their state or district. The people send them there. So when we have extremist politicians, politicians whose primary concern is for their base, politicians who seem more interested in gaining attention rather than in governing effectively, what does that say about the people who elected them? We love to point fingers at politicians and blame them – it’s far easier to scapegoat one person, than it is to look in the mirror at ourselves and look around at our neighbors and ask how we are contributing to the state of politics. Are we more concerned with what we want rather than what is best for the country and the people residing here?

Here’s what I don’t understand – People who get upset at politicians for passing laws they don’t like and then turn around and continue to vote for those same people. Here’s a simple rule to live by – stop voting for people who openly value something different than you do. You have to look past the R or D after their name though. I know that people make assumptions based on the letter after the name, but you have to look past that. But here again, our politics has become an identity challenge. We have turned our party registrations into something way beyond what they were ever designed to be. And that’s not a good thing. Making a party membership a basis for an identity does not help the nation and it is not healthy for individuals either. In my dream world, I would love to get rid of political parties all together. But I’m realistic enough to understand that even if we did that – we would find ways to label people and group ourselves with likeminded people, just like a political party. Humans tend to be tribalistic after all.

Is politics broken? We certainly have a unique situation in our presidential politics right now. I don’t need to describe it – you have to be living in an alternative universe to be unaware.

There’s a question about presidential debates for this year. Personally, I think there isn’t much of a point in doing presidential debates this year. What exactly are we going to learn about these two men that we don’t already know? Is anyone actually going to change their mind because of a debate performance? We’re really good at spinning just about anything the way we want to hear it. We’ll make all sorts of excuses for our team, our tribe, our ideology, our candidate, our party, and more. Because in the end, apparently what matters to us most is being right, rather than what is best for the country.

Is politics broken? I don’t think so. I think it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to – dealing with the reality of a conflict of identity. Our system doesn’t like a 50/50 split. And so the system is designed to create an impasse. The purpose? I argue that it’s to cause us pain so that we make decisions, see how unhealthy this is, choose what we are actually about and what we value, so that we can move forward and remove the pain of conflict. Or maybe I’m just wrong – maybe we enjoy conflict far more than any of us realize. Maybe we just love to fight and be angry and scapegoat someone else.

I have this theory. Ever since we became a Super Power, we defined who we are as a nation based on who we aren’t – the Communists. And that worked until the Soviet Union fell. And all of sudden, we didn’t have way to define ourselves. We haven’t found a suitable answer to the question of “who are we?” since then. We’ve been debating that question for three decades now, with no answer. And when we didn’t find a suitable outside enemy to help us define who we are, we turned inward on ourselves and found enemies within. This is where we are now – Americans at each others’ throats because we don’t have a common external enemy to use to help define us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But it sure seems like we prefer to always have some kind of enemy, to always be vilifying someone else. Maybe that’s so we don’t have to do the hard word of doing self-examination.

It would be much healthier if we could define who we are as a nation without having to rely on an enemy. But tribalism runs deep in humanity. And it would require us to move past a carry over from the Stone Age and before.

Is politics broken? I don’t know. But I do know that people are not perfect. And our systems are imperfect. But our expectations somehow are perfection. That doesn’t seem like a good fit. Maybe we should be more realistic. Maybe we should be a lot of things. Maybe we should have some more grace for each other and the system we operate in. It seems like it would benefit us all.

Is politics broken? I don’t know. But what I do know if that our ultimate hope shouldn’t be in a political system, or political party, or politician, or ideology, or even the nation. Because at some point, all of those things will disappoint us to some degree. For some people, it goes well beyond disappointment too – we should recognize that. This isn’t an all or nothing argument here. I’m not arguing for scrapping the nation. That would cause a whole lot of pain and suffering and chaos. I’m arguing for us to be realistic, to do self-examination, to have some humility and grace. I’m arguing that while we might have aspirations that are wonderful, that we recognize how far away we are from those. I’m arguing that putting ones identity in something human-made and in constant flux might not be the best or healthiest option. I’m arguing that we all have problems and challenges and that we should expect that we’re going to project those problems and challenges onto our political system. And I’m arguing that there is always room for improvement.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *