American Politics: A dysfunctional mess

Polarization has become dangerous

Washington Watch

In case you haven’t noticed, American politics are a dysfunctional mess. You might be excused for missing this sad reality, as the USA never tires of chiding other countries for their lack of democratic institutions or their failure to adhere to or protect democratic values.

Both were on display this past week as President Joseph Biden, from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, prodded other nations to join the USA in defending democracy in Ukraine. And then in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden mildly criticized the Israeli leader’s efforts to weaken that country’s judiciary.

While we continue to advocate overseas for democracy and its values, a recent study by Pew Research shows that the confidence Americans have in our own political system has eroded to dangerously low levels— and for good reasons.

Congress is paralyzed by hyper-partisanship, stubborn ideologues, and arcane rules that allow for and even encourage obstructionist behavior.

In the House of Representatives, the Republican Speaker is held hostage by a handful of hardliners who have pledged to withhold votes from his effort to pass a budget that is favorable to Republican priorities unless he submits to their demands for even greater cuts in domestic spending and foreign aid. As a result, the USA faces, not for the first time, the very real prospect of a government shutdown.

Democrats have nominal (51-49) control of the US Senate, but they too face problems from two self-styled “independents,” whose votes are never assured, and from rules that allow a Senator to put a “hold” on approving any presidential nominations for reasons that have nothing to do with the nominees’ qualifications. As a result, one senator has blocked the approval of 200 military promotions and appointees because of his disagreement with a Pentagon policy on abortion.

After Republicans blocked consideration of a President Obama appointee to the Supreme Court— which was then filled by a President Trump appointee— and then were gifted with the opportunity to fill another slot as a result of an aged Justice’s refusal to resign in time for his seat to be filled during the Obama Administration, the Court has taken decidedly conservative stances on a number of key issues affecting separation of church and state, abortion, affirmative action, and environmental regulations.

And while almost two-thirds of the electorate indicate displeasure with the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch, both parties appear to be headed toward re-nominating them in 2024.

Proposals that gain the most support include: term limits on members of Congress, imposing age limits on elected officials and Supreme Court Justices, limiting the amount of money individuals or groups can spend in campaigns, and requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification before voting.

The problems don’t end there. With the complete collapse of campaign finance regulations, our elections and the entire political process are increasingly dominated by billions of dollars raised not only by the two political parties but also by political action committees and corporate interest groups. These billions are used to pay for consultants and massive negative advertising campaigns that have only served to polarize and pollute the political waters.

Add to this the very similar problems that exist in state and local governments and the role the corruption of major media outlets that no longer report news but mold it to match their particular political agendas—and you have a witch’s brew of increasingly polarized dysfunction.

The above only describes some of the problems confronting the major institutions that have, in the past, served to secure democracy in the US. As a result, it is no wonder that the recent Pew Research study finds Americans losing confidence in the country’s politics and its institutions. Here are a few of the findings:

  • Only 4 percent say the US political system is working well. 63 percent express little or no confidence in the future of American politics.
  • When asked to identify the strengths in the US political system, 56 percent are either unwilling or unable to identify any.
  • 65 percent say they are either always or often exhausted when they think about politics. On the other hand, 78 percent say they are either rarely or never excited about politics, while a majority says are just not hopeful.
  • When asked to identify how they feel about our political system, only 2 percent use a positive term, with 79 percent using negative terms like “divisive,” “corrupt,” messy” or “chaos.”
  • Over 80 percent say the cost of political campaigns is so high that it keeps good people from running and gives too much influence to big donors and lobbyists.

The Pew study concludes by asking voters to evaluate several ideas that could reform politics. Proposals that gain the most support include: term limits on members of Congress, imposing age limits on elected officials and Supreme Court Justices, limiting the amount of money individuals or groups can spend in campaigns, and requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification before voting. But the prospects of any of them happening are doubtful given that they must be passed by Congress, signed by the president, and pass constitutional muster by the Supreme Court.

As that won’t happen, dysfunction will continue to define our system leaving part of the electorate alienated from politics, another part frustrated and ripe for exploitation by Trump-like demagogues, and the rest, hoping against hope that change will come, but unsure how it can happen and whether it will be for better or worse.

Dr James J Zogby
Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.

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