THE BLOG
03/12/2014 01:40 pm ET Updated May 12, 2014

Howard's Daily: The Perils of Political Science

I always wondered what political scientists did. If you too are curious, read some of the 30 or so essays that the Washington Post has collected for a series on political polarization. With a few exceptions, the ones I read seem to accept the inevitability of democratic dysfunction. Political scientists slice and date the data to explain why polarization is, or is not, a new phenomenon, and similar abstract points.

A post by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina is titled "Gridlock is bad. The alternative is worse." The gist is that parties focus on polarized positions (say, Right to Life vs. Right to Choose), which do not reflect the more moderate views of the general electorate. Therefore, he concludes, gridlock is better than action. 

I guess that's a point. Far more important is this question: Why is it that parties get bogged down in litmus test issues, and never get around to issues vital to the daily functioning of society? However strongly you feel about abortion and gun control, the debate will do nothing to solve deficits, make schools work better, or save fish in the sea. 

I have a different hypothesis than Prof. Fiorina: Modern American politics is an artificial game designed for gridlock. Polarization is a useful tool to excite the extremists. As long as the tug of war continues over divisive ideological issues, party coffers will keep ringing with new campaign money. Prof. Fiorina has no reason to fear action on these issues; that's the last thing Ted Cruz or Harry Reid wants. Then they would bear responsibility for the consequences. 

The disaster of modern politics is that our leaders are not even debating the real issues: Decaying infrastructure, obsolete entitlements, unmanageable civil service, and a disjointed regulatory system that makes starting a business unimaginable for most people -- the US now ranks 20th in the world for "ease of starting a business." These are not ideological issues. That, apparently, is why politicians don't address them. Who wants to take responsibility for change that, inevitably, some people won't like? Better to rant and rave over ideological issues where gridlock is virtually guaranteed. 

The genesis of litmus test politics probably lies in a toxic mix of gerrymandering, campaign finance, and reflexive social fears of Big Brother telling us how to live our lives. Whatever the causes, America's political culture has changed. This isn't the way the game worked under Howard Baker and Everett Dirksen and Sam Rayburn, but this is the way the game is played today. What's missing? For starters, there's no accountability for the growing dysfunction. It's hard to hold anyone accountable when everyone--public and politicians alike -- is trapped in a black hole of ideological stalemate -- just turn on Fox News or MSNBC--without a line of sight to a new vision of a functioning democracy. The only people with visions are the loonies on both extremes.  

America shouldn't fear action. It should fear a political culture designed to divert attention away from practical realities. The solution is a clean break: New leaders who do not get overwhelmed by cynicism, emboldened by a popular movement to fix this broken system, top to bottom. At this point, America has far more to fear from continued paralysis than from action.

For more Howard's Daily posts, visit commongood.org/blog.