American politics is self-evidently in a state of crisis. The nation is producing terrible political leadership. Government is paralyzed. Political polarization is ripping American society into two warring camps.
The above assertions will be almost universally recognized as the truth.
But when we ask about the source of the crisis, that’s when the agreement breaks down. That’s when we fall back into our states of partisan rage and blame the other side.
The crisis, however, is not primarily the fault of the left or the right. The source of the crisis lies in the failure of the American political system itself.
The “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, can help us understand what’s gone wrong.
For Madison, it was crucial that government serve the broad, long-term, and common good of the people, while resisting special, narrow, and selfish interests. He called these interests “factions.”
Madison believed that our republic had essentially two defenses against selfish interests.
The first defense was our familiar system of “checks and balances.”
By giving the different branches of government contrasting powers, means of election, and terms in office, he hoped that only judicious laws that served the common good would emerge at the end of the lengthy legislative process created by the Founders.
Madison also believed that the large size of the American republic would help prevent selfish interests from taking over.
In a large republic, so many interests would exist that no single interest was likely to become powerful enough to form a majority, capture the government, and serve itself at the expense of the whole.
Rather, Madison thought the many interests found in a populous society would check each other.
These were reasonable expectations in 1787, but they are hopelessly feeble defenses against selfish interests in the 21st Century. The modern nation-state permits hordes of voracious self-interests to gorge themselves at the trough of power simultaneously.
Meanwhile, the health of the nation as a whole is almost completely neglected.
The fundamental problem is that each and every incentive in our current political system favors service to selfish interests over the common and long-term good of the American people.
Whether your concern is the national debt or climate change, our political leaders don’t care much about the future beyond the next election. Their priority is their own power.
All manner of moneyed interests, including corporations, trade groups, and labor unions, serve themselves by buying our political leaders with campaign contributions.
Or, sitting politicians threaten these same interests with adverse legislation if they don’t donate. Our campaign finance system is based on legalized bribery and extortion.
The ability of powerful incumbent politicians to raise campaign money this way, taken together with gerrymandering, entrenches career politician in office and makes elections absurdly unfair.
Approximately 85% of all senators and 95% of all House members are virtually guaranteed re-election every single time.
Career politicians have no incentive to compromise for the good of the nation. Rather, the incentives favor demonizing the other side because doing so mobilizes the party’s political base, raises money, and best serves the overwhelming desire for more power (which they assure us will one day be used for our benefit, if only they can acquire enough of it!).
Lobbyists, political pundits, and the mass media all promote the polarization and demonization in order to make the maximum amount of money for themselves.
Selfish interests have corrupted our justice system. The rich, powerful, and politically-connected often leverage their privileges to escape justice or shield their political allies. Poor and middle-class people do not get issued such keep-out-of-jail cards.
The result is more popular rage and cynicism.
The federal bureaucracy is politicized. Whistle-blowers are punished rather than rewarded. Inspectors general get attacked for doing their jobs. The politically powerful protect their own.
Revolving doors swing open and shut between industry and government “service,” which too often has become self-service.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll later found that 86% of respondents from across the political spectrum agree with the following statement:
"For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost."
Think on that number for a moment: 86%.
It reflects a powerful and overwhelming consensus. With this kind of near unanimity, we the people should be able to fix our political system.
The problem is that those who control the system are keeping us divided by getting us to blame “the other side” rather than the system itself.
The consequences are catastrophic. Every political value we hold sacred as Americans is being compromised or is under threat. If what we are facing is not a “crisis,” then that word has no meaning.
It’s high time for united action to save our republic. Quite simply, we must remove every incentive from our political system that favors service to selfish interests over the common good.
It won’t be quick or easy, but it can and must be done. Designing the mechanisms to unite the country in order to reform our system will be our critical first step.
Author's note: This is part one of a two-part series. Be sure to check out part two here.
Editor's note: Stephen Erickson is the author of "What Would Madison Do? The Political Journey Progressives and Conservatives Must Make Together." You can reach him at [email protected].