American politics always has been a full-contact activity. Even in the nastiest of times, though, important achievements still were possible. Not today. An entire political industry of consultants, funders, interest groups and others has fostered a duopoly — the Democratic and Republican parties — that depresses competition, discourages meaningful policy solutions and deters political reforms in order to protect a turf that is lucrative to a favored few but destructive to the country.
Hyperpartisanship isn’t the result of divided politics. It is a tactic used by the political industry to achieve its goals — securing and retaining power.
In a forum last year, former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Democrat, and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Republican, reflected on how Congress and politics in general have come to be so tied in knots. There were contentious events and polarizing presidents when these two statesmen served in Washington. Yet Congress — and in particular the Senate, where both men served — accomplished great things, from arms control to environmental protection to advancing opportunities and rights for the disadvantaged.
Mondale and Durenberger were asked why the current crop of politicians can’t or won’t set aside partisan differences to focus on the broader needs of the country. Both offered a variety of answers. But one stood out: Today’s Democrats and Republicans not only have very different perspectives on just about every issue — they can’t even get together on defining the problems.
Consider the current battle over immigration policy. Republicans tend to define the challenge as border security; Democrats often see it through a lens of social justice.
If we can’t agree on the problem, finding common ground on the details of solutions is next to impossible.
Intransigence serves the political industry better than compromise. It plays to the core voters of each party — the most intense conservatives and liberals. The Republican base rallied to the line in the sand drawn by former Republican House Speaker John Boehner when he promised to stop everything President Barack Obama proposed: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” Eight years later, the election of President Donald Trump has united Democrats under the banner of “resistance.” These are hardly rallying cries for getting things done.
Polarization and petty, self-serving politics have serious consequences. Congressional dysfunction is contributing to a lower sense of well-being among Americans today than during the Great Recession, according to a Gallup survey. And for good reason. The share of the nation’s income going to the middle 60 percent fell to the lowest share since 1967, when the Census Bureau started tracking the data. The angst of those seeing the American dream slip from their grasp is exploited through the politics of racism, misogyny and xenophobia.
Meanwhile, government increasingly acts in secrecy or by default. Major legislation — the recent tax bill and omnibus budget, for example — are passed with almost no one having actually read the bills. A gridlocked Congress seems more than willing to hand power off to the president. Obama routinely bypassed Congress to unilaterally enact far-reaching policies, and Trump seems intent on doing even more with only a pen in hand.
In addition, unelected and unaccountable regulatory agencies every day impose new mandates that affect every aspect of the economy and American life. One example: The Environmental Protection Agency under Obama imposed nearly 4,000 new regulations, most of them having to do with climate change. Today, the EPA is trying to repeal those regulations one by one, a process not likely to stop even after administrator Scott Pruitt’s departure. Government by whiplash is not productive.
Keeping the public misinformed on the scope and impact of this government-under-wraps is important to the political industry. Interest groups working only in their own interest spend many millions to distract the public from the real issues while undermining confidence in the traditional arbiters of what is fact and what is nonsense. And they are effective.
According to Pew…