The following is a response to an abstract expertly written by my friend, Lynn Gerlach, of a book co-authored by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt entitled How Democracies Die. The abstract is an excellent read in its own right and was the inspiration for my comments below. I encourage my readers to visit the Speakeasy Blog at www.tammarackcommunicatons.com in order to read the entire piece, including the comments section. So, off we go…
Here are four underlying causes I attribute to many of the problems addressed in Lynn’s abstract, as they apply to the U.S., and which I have seen coming for years:
1. Extremists from both parties have taken over the primaries: The squeaky wheels get the grease and the extremists are the squeakiest. And the squeakiest get the most media attention (the talk shows are always on red alert for something to talk about, especially if it can in any way be construed as controversial).
So, candidates seeking a presidential nomination must accommodate those extremists in order to get on the ballot. This may be accomplished by simply being radical in their own right or appearing to be radical. If successful, the nominees are then tasked with becoming “electable” in the eyes of mainstream voters, who are by and large moderates and who must choose between two seemingly unsavory choices.
2. Individuals seeking Congressional nominations or reelection must forge a path through the same extremist demands and, in doing so, are often expected to pledge to be unyielding on key issues. Then, ironically, when successful in their election bids, the voters are angry with them for not compromising with the opposing party (“Throw the bums out!”).
So why are these persons so anxious to become/remain a member of Congress in the first place? In too many cases, it’s due to number 3, below.
3. No term limits breeds abdication of duties. Congress, over the years, has slowly but surely enacted laws and regulations that greatly enhance the power and financial benefits of incumbents, which, in turn, result in an elitist lifestyle far more comfortable than that of the average American—it could truly be considered the best, part-time government job in America. Therefore, these office holders are incentivized to dodge anything that might negatively impact their fundraising abilities or their abilities to be reelected. This includes the fanatical avoidance of having to take a formal position on anything remotely controversial, in other words, voting. (Which is why, of course, Congressional leaders never allow a vote on anything of national consequence when there is an upcoming election).
Thus, with Congress having willfully forfeited its opportunity to govern on major issues, the sitting president has no choice but to govern through executive order. Unfortunately, some presidents are more than happy to do so. And if anything goes wrong, of course, Congress can then blame it on the president instead of taking the heat themselves. The ongoing immigration fiasco is a prime example of this.
(Incidentally, the dangers of finding ourselves stuck with a president-for-life was nipped in the bud after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term, leaving office only due to death. This was accomplished with the enactment of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in 1947 and ratified by the states in 1951. Unfortunately, the likelihood of our current crop of lawmakers voting for such an amendment regarding their own offices is virtually null.)
4. Candidates who are highly qualified and eager to serve are discouraged from seeking elected office. Although I have only anecdotal evidence of this, there appears to be few in this category who are willing to endure a brutal and costly election campaign. Thus, we are left with many career politicians who are simply inept and retain their seats, term-after-term, through gerrymandering and other schemes, and ne’er-do-wells new to the scene seeking a way to latch onto one of those highly coveted U.S. Senate seats.
Finally, let it be known that there are numerous members of Congress who are capable, thoughtful and patriotic public servants and whose desire to serve takes precedence over personal ambition. Unfortunately, they are too often overshadowed by Congressional leaders who seem to thrive on polarization, and the loudest mouths among their peers who typically fall into the latter categories noted in item 4, above.