I become, each day, more distressed about the state of our democracy.
The founding theory of this nation was that an informed electorate would make the right choices with regard to governance. In an impressive display of wisdom, the founders built a system that would require people of different beliefs to reach compromises in order to govern.
The nature of the individual voter perhaps is not significantly different from the nature of the voter of the late 1700s; and if you read books describing that era (I recommend, for example, Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton”), you will realize that vicious attacks on political opponents are nothing new.
But it seems a certain nihilism has crept into our politics: a “let’s blow it up” philosophy far from an early shared belief that the end result was actually to govern. Voters then seemed to understand that people of divergent beliefs would have to work together to resolve the nation’s problems.
That doesn’t seem to be where we are now. Richard Mourdock, when he ran to defeat the highly esteemed Sen. Dick Lugar, famously said, “There is too much bipartisanship in Washington.” I thought this was not only antithetical to the founders’ intent, but also outside the mainstream. Apparently, it was all too reflective of today’s electorate.
It’s a peculiar, schizophrenic phenomenon: We have fellow citizens who say, in a mutation of the theory “that government is best that governs least,” that we’d be better off if nothing got done in Washington. It’s a viewpoint that led many voters to support shutting down the government over a disagreement on the federal budget. These voters consider compromise anathema, preferring philosophical purity to results. You’ll hear those same people saying: “Throw the bums out—we sent them there to get things done and they haven’t.”
Even in 2012, the presidential election appeared to be focused on who was more likely to be capable of governing wisely. I don’t think that’s where we are in 2016—among the voters of either party—and it concerns me about where we’re headed.
Voters don’t want compromise. They are fed up with the “establishment”—those who listen to others’ views, trying to find a way to accommodate disparate concerns and achieving a result that perhaps no one sees as perfect but that moves the country in a positive direction.
As some voters see it, “Compromise is possible—as long as the other guy comes around to my point of view.”
Many have tried to explain the no-compromise phenomenon. Charles Murray, in the must-read “Coming Apart,” suggests that most people are so insulated from the lives of others not like them that they are incapable of understanding their views. Others suggest a similar clash between cultural relativism and those with absolute beliefs about right and wrong.
Arthur Brooks, president of
the American Enterprise Institute, says political commentary today is so polarized that it is “contemptuous … overflowing with sneering, mockery and disgust.” Contempt for the views of our opponents is a recipe not for accomplishment, but for more gridlock.
I’m not sure how we can return a sense of sanity to our politics, but we’d better figure it out—and soon.•
Daniels, managing partner of Krieg DeVault LLP, is a former U.S. attorney, assistant U.S. attorney general, and president of the Sagamore Institute. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.