The much-vaunted American system of government has not been working for some time and needs radical overhaul if we are to live up to our promise to our own citizens and maintain our place among the top nations of the world. Forget all that nonsense about our so-called exceptionalism and being a beacon of democracy and justice for the rest of the world. That's over. Why would anyone admire our political, judicial or economic systems when they so obviously do not work and our own citizens no longer have respect for them? As everyone who has been paying attention knows, Congress has its lowest approval rating -- under 20 percent -- since they started taking these polls.
Our ignorance about what is happening beyond our shores and how we actually perform in comparison with other developed nations; our dismal mismanagement of our own affairs; and our arrogance in thinking that we could impose our system on other nations -- the ridiculous and now thoroughly discredited doctrine of the neocons -- have left us in a sorry state. We have squandered the moral high ground and the international political capital that was earned by an earlier generation in World War II and a post-war economic system that produced a huge middle-class that was the envy of the world.
So, what are some of the causes of our current dysfunction? Let's look at the U.S. Senate, first of all. What is democratic about giving the senators representing the half-million or so residents of Vermont or Wyoming the same power as those who represent California's 37 million or New York State's 18 million? The principle of one-person-one-vote is missing in action here and these are only the most egregious examples of gross misrepresentation of the people's will in the Senate and, consequently, in public policy outcomes. This might have made sense when the country was founded and smaller states could have a legitimate concern about being ignored by the more populous ones. However, it makes no sense today, except to those intent on thwarting the will of the overwhelming majority of the electorate.
Add to this the adoption of self-imposed Senate rules that require a two-thirds majority to pass key legislation, as well as those that allow individual members to bring all proceedings to a halt by the use of the filibuster or points of personal privilege, and you have a perfect recipe for obstruction, inaction and dysfunction. In practice, any senator representing a miniscule segment of the electorate can -- and frequently does -- hold the country hostage to the needs of his or her constituency or, increasingly, to the huge moneyed interests that will spend unlimited amounts of money to support or defeat him or her. If an individual senator is locked into a particular ideology, which is not uncommon today, the idea that politics is the art of compromise no longer applies and the will of the majority counts for nothing.
An additional undemocratic element of the present system is the Electoral College which, in 1876, 1888 and 2000, handed the presidency to a candidate who did not win the popular vote. It could happen again and is that what we want, regardless of which party's candidate is the beneficiary? Getting rid of the Electoral College should be a bipartisan project, if that whole idea had not become risible in recent years. Nevertheless, it needs to be done.
Then there is the exponentially increasing role of money (unlimited amounts of it) in politics. As Elliot Gerson of the Aspen Institute notes in his article "To Make America Great Again, We Need to Leave the Country" in the July issue of The Atlantic:
In 1974, the total spent by all candidates for Congress, House and Senate, was $77 million. In 2010, it was $1.8 billion. Members of Congress spend up to 70 percent of their time raising money; that is their job; they have become fundraisers far more than they are legislators. In that same year (1974), 3 percent of retiring Congressmen became lobbyists. Now it's 50 percent for Senators, 42 percent for House members. Critics from the left and right and middle alike call our political finance system one of 'legalized bribery'
Drastically compounding this problem -- and making a mockery of the supposed checks and balances built into the system -- is the Supreme Court's astounding finding that corporations are people in the Citizens United case. The Court sanctioned the infusion of unlimited, unregulated and anonymously contributed billions of dollars into the political system. To mention only one of the perverse effects of this decision, Gerson cites the fact that:
Newt Gingrich's campaign was kept alive long after the people declared it dead by one billionaire gambling magnate. In any close election today, a single individual, a lone crackpot even, can spend enough to defeat someone.
Does this sound like a system we can be proud of or hold up as a model for the rest of the world? Is it the one that is being taught in high school civics classes?
Aside from a Congress that has failed to produce any vital legislation in recent years, not even to address our impending budget crisis or the need to put the millions of Americans who are presently unemployed back to work, what other demonstrable examples are there that the system is not working? Well, take the matters of poverty and inequality. Who would have thought that these would be issues in 21st-century America? But they certainly are, as Gerson reminds us:
One of the strongest indications of American democratic dysfunction is pervasive and expanding poverty. It is not just its existence in the richest country on earth that is shameful, but its utter absence from political discourse. Most of the poor don't vote; they have largely given up hope. And what national politician talks about poverty? Can you name any?
America is moving toward the kind of bifurcated society we used to deride in banana republics -- the rich getting richer in gated communities, while the poor grow poorer, barely seen in segregated urban ghettos and hidden rural decay. Over 20 million Americans live in extreme poverty. ... Add the poor and the near-poor -- that is under $44,000 for a family of four -- and you have more than 100 million people.
Is this a model that the rest of the world might admire and aspire to? Hardly. Are we a hopeless case? Certainly not. But we should dampen our national pride and curb our arrogance until we get our house in order.