Is American Politics Broken?

The first Federal government shut down in 17 years. The prospect of the first ever default on our nation's debt. Why can't our political parties compromise? What caused us to reach this point again, and how do we fix American politics when we are more divided now than at any other point in our country's recent history? The only chance is to restore the measure of policy consensus we had from World War II until the last few years.

From Franklin Roosevelt until the election of Barack Obama, the United States enjoyed remarkable political stability--despite Presidential transitions by assassination, resignation, defeat of incumbence, and even a Supreme Court decision. We had center-right and center-left political parties, which tussled for power but operated within a range of ideological parameters that seem blessedly narrow by today's standards.

Which party had the White House when federal troops integrated the Central High School in Little Rock; the interstate highway system and Environmental Protection Agency were created; taxes were hiked to save social security; the Americans with Disabilities Act passed; and the U.S. undertook to save Africa from AIDS?

The Republicans.

Which party was in the White House when atomic bombs fell on Japan; during the Cuban Missile Crisis; during the height of Vietnam, and during the incursion in Iran (in the tragically failed hostage mission); and when we waged an air war in the heart of Europe in the last years of the 20th century?

That was the Democrats.

Looking back, it's truly remarkable how interchangeable the political ideals and policies of the parties were in what now seem like halcyon days of consensus.

Then, President Obama campaigned on a platform many see as outside the 65-year consensus on the both the role of government in the economy and the role of America in the world. Concurrently, the Tea Party emerged and was quite serious about reducing the size, scope, and cost of the Federal Government to pre-New Deal levels, and was willing to use every tool of obstruction--including the essentially Confederate strategy of nullification.

Both sides represented polarizing deviations from that 65-year consensus. Putting it in quantitative terms, we went from a mainstream political spectrum that was arguing, ever since at least Nixon, about whether the Federal government should tax and spend at 15-25 percent of GDP to an argument between, perhaps, (if each side could truly do what it wants) a government taxing and spending at 10-40 percent of GDP. And, of course, the sharp end of this divide is over whether the Federal government should guarantee American's health insurance.

Many of the issues discussed as causes of the present political impasse -- politically monopolistic House District boundaries, extraordinary use of the filibuster in the Senate, the appearances of impropriety in the world of campaign money, and others -- may better be seen as symptoms of the underlying problem of fundamental ideological disagreement.

Obviously, today, the two political branches of our government are at complete loggerheads. They run in place, with confrontation after confrontation, and untold costs to an economy and a people still bruised from the fall into recession five years ago.

How far we have come from the unshakable commitment to compromise which defined the Constitutional Convention. Those "politicians" were willing to compromise huge things, even agreeing to the abominable notion that slaves were 3/5ths of a person, in order to create a nation that at least aimed, for the long haul, at the realization of the principles of their Preamble.

The many and serious compromises of the Constitutional Convention did not make the Founders seem like dirty politicians to their body politic. Rather, it is today's uncompromising leaders, of the right and left -- with views outside a 65-year fundamental consensus -- who have fostered deep cynicism.

Even before the latest Washington mess, at New York's 12th memorial ceremony for the events of 9/11/2001, no "politicians" were permitted to speak. Imagine an America in which Lincoln would not have been welcomed at Gettysburg? We have arrived at that place.

Is American politics broken?

The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia intended to do its part to explore this question, at an event held on October 7. In a bitter irony, this debate was scheduled to occur in Congress Hall, America's Capitol from 1790-1800, until American politics padlocked the building.

The event featured an exchange of views by former Senators Evan Bayh and Fred Thompson, both considered, at various times, as potential Presidents of the United States, but neither of who hold views likely to win primaries in their parties today. This was not about anyone "winning" a debate but about attempting to restore the ethos of a responsible search for leadership and the consensus which leaders can make, for it is such a measure of consensus that first created a nation and then made it a world power, notwithstanding Vladimir Putin's view, of both "exceptional" greatness and capacity for goodness.