It is coming up on four years since I finished writing my book ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, a First-Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’ and it is time to review the assessments made in the book and update its conclusions.
The book concluded that changes in the American political system would be required to allow the nation to address the major structural flaws that had been creeping up in a house that has stood for almost three and a half centuries.
My presumption is that the effectiveness of a political system can, and should, be measured by its capacity to craft solutions to the most pressing challenges a nation and its population faces. And the contention in my book was that our existing political system, as it functions today, puts our nation at risk of losing its dominance and vibrancy by not offering any steps to deal with the flaws that threaten to undermine its otherwise impressive edifice.
In my book, I identified as cracks in the building of our nation: the national debt and deficit; a crumbling and outdated infrastructure; absence of a comprehensive immigration policy; a losing battle in the war on drugs, the war on terror and the war on poverty; excessive cost of and uneven access to healthcare and education; and neglect and denial when it comes to protecting the environment of our planet.
My further contention was that not addressing the cracks in our building has resulted in creating a level of inequality within our population that is a disgrace to the richest and most resourceful nation on earth and a threat to its stability, national security and economic outlook.
It is telling that all the cracks in the system are of a nature that only governments can correct. This has not changed. In my book, I drew attention to the sharp gap between performance of the private and the public sectors. That gap is wider today than it was four years ago. Our businesses are humming and they are addressing problems of public interest like the treatment of women, climate change, work environment and employment of disabled persons, people with a criminal record and immigrants. Our government on the other hand, under Obama and Trump, has not addressed anything of the kind over the four years that have passed since I finished writing my book. It has only rapidly further increased the national debt that now stands at $21 Trillion (a truly scary and unfathomable number) and is bound to accelerate pace fed by the Trump tax cut, the omnibus budget bill and rising interest rates. By not addressing any of the cracks in our building, our problems have festered, exposing in a painful manner the inadequacies of our political system.
I argued in NEITHER HERE NOR THERE that, if a building is structurally flawed and unsafe, it gets condemned. Nothing of the kind has happened to rectify the US political system, even though it is deeply flawed and manifestly unfit for the purposes it is supposed to serve. The structural flaws that I identified were:
· The two-party system
· The money influence
· The election system
· The absence of a national strategy
Let’s look if anything has changed in any of these areas.
1) THE TWO-PARTY SYSTEM
The two-party system has not changed, at least not organizationally. But there are ominous clouds building over the future of the GOP and the Democratic Party. In fact, internal consensus is completely lacking in both parties. There have always been factions, but what we see today looks more like fractions. In the GOP we have long had a more conservative (fiscally and socially) and a more moderate, centrist, representation. And in the Democratic Party we have similarly had a more radical, leftist and a more moderate, centrist faction. But the factions were generally conversant and unified come election time. That may no longer be the case. It is hard to say who is in worse shape. The GOP has been split asunder by the Trump election, which the party did not want, but could not stop. The split has, so far, largely been plastered over by the refusal of most GOP members of Congress to openly revolt against a President who never was a Republican, or even a conservative, until he decided to run for the highest office in the land. But the primaries leading up to the midterm elections in November will expose the warring factions in full daylight display. The by-elections in Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania have demonstrated that Trump’s coattails have been trimmed to threads. Some observers go as far as saying that the emperor has no clothes. The fight for the soul (and platform) of the GOP will be fought by at least three distinctly different ideology adherents: 1) Far right conservatives (mostly coming from the Tea Party wing); 2) Centrists; and 3) Populists. The outcome of the primaries and the midterm election will show which faction is winning and then it remains to be seen if the losing factions will stay with the party.
The Democratic Party is not in much better shape. It suffers from a lack of leadership and strategic direction. The far-left is by far the most vocal and has the support of much of the younger population (that always seems to be the case and not only in the USA). But its policy proposals are so far out of the mainstream that the party cannot expect to come back in power on the far-left platform. Anything that smells or looks like socialism or communism is (thankfully) antithetical to American beliefs and values. The best chance for Democrats is to unify behind a pragmatic, forward looking agenda that systematically addresses the cracks in the building that have appeared over time and which are enumerated above. Here too, the upcoming primaries and the midterm election will show which faction will take control of the party.
Regardless of which faction will emerge victoriously from the primaries and midterm election of 2018, on the Republican side and the Democratic side, it is certain that large factions in both parties will feel left behind and will be pondering their options.
The discontent with the current positioning of the two main parties is already clearly exhibited by the number of legislators on both sides of the aisle (but primarily in the GOP) who have declared that they will not be running for re-election. As hard as it may be to establish a viable new political party, circumstances have never in my lifetime been better to see it happen before the next Presidential election in 2020. The nation would be well served with the creation of a centrist third party that would attract moderates from both sides of the aisle. It would give people like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Charlie Dent, John Kasich, Doug Jones, Conor Lamb, Mitch Landrieu, Jim Webb and Mark Warner a place to go to and stay active in politics.
2) THE MONEY INFLUENCE
Money remains king in politics. If there ever was any doubt, you just have to look at the amount of money spent in the most recent by-election for the Pennsylvania 18th District, which was narrowly won by Democrat Conor Lamb. Reportedly more than $10 million was spent on the losing side and more than $2 million on behalf of the winner. This, for one seat in the House of Representatives that will change again in November as a result of re-districting. The ugly reality remains that our elected officials have to keep going back to the well to ‘buy’ their re-election chances and -as a result- end up to be more beholden to their donors than to their constituents. The law has not changed in the last four years. There is a vicious circle here: Change cannot be expected to come from members of Congress who depend on donor money for their campaign and the judicial branch condones the current situation. It has judged that ‘independent expenditures made by individuals….do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption’ (Justice Kennedy writing for majority in Citizens United v. FEC, 2010). The legislature can justify its self-serving inaction with the Supreme Court’s prohibition of rational steps to take the money influence out of politics.
As long as the US Supreme Court holds on to its judgment that limits on election campaign spending are unconstitutional (Buckley v. Valeo, 1976); that political spending is a form of free speech protected under the First Amendment; and that the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections (Citizens United v. FEC, 2010), the money will keep flowing, influencing the outcome of elections and the content of legislative action and inaction.
Noteworthy is that the 45th President, in his election campaign, was willing to finance his campaign largely with his own money and money from the Trump organization, not relying on donor money, although his campaign ended up accepting third party money where offered. His election was a rare case where the outcome at the ballot box was not significantly influenced by either the amount of money donated to the campaign by third parties or the breadth of the field of donors to his campaign. In the meantime, Trump has apparently changed his mind and is actively conducting fundraising events for his re-election campaign.
I have suggested to end the scourge of money in politics by paying members of Congress an honorarium of a million dollars per year but prohibiting them from earning or accepting any money from private sources for the time of their tenure. Always a very long shot, it seems that we are only further away from dealing with this scourge than we ever were before.
3) THE ELECTION SYSTEM
The frequency of elections, specifically the need for members of the House of Representatives to campaign for re-election every two years, is an impediment to constructive, forward looking work by the legislative branch. The frequency of elections increases the dependency on donor money and takes away from the time that legislators have to do the work they are elected for. The obvious solution of longer but fewer terms (term limits), in order to lessen the time needed for fund raising and to free up more time for the ‘peoples work’, is nowhere on anyone’s political agenda.
The system, in my view, is also hampered by the absence of any statutory requirement to address, in a national election campaign, the most important challenges for which the political system will have to provide solutions. How, other than by party affiliation and (mostly negative) political advertising, can the voting public determine who they want to vote in office, if it has to wait and see until after the election how, if at all, their candidate will deal with the most pressing needs of the nation?
While, in these two respects, nothing has changed, widespread dissatisfaction with the dysfunction in the Washington Beltway has spurred discussion and some action, bringing about change in other aspects of our election system. First of all, with the districting process. States are taking action against the gerrymandering practices that have drawn ridiculous district lines serving only one purpose: to bring together the highest possible number of politically likeminded people, offering ‘safe and secure’ districts to incumbents. And, just recently, the US Supreme Court has declined to hear a Republican appeal against the redrawn congressional map in Pennsylvania that has done away with gerrymandering in that State.
Another development pertains to the process of primary elections. Here too, the States are the laboratories of innovation and improvement. At least 22 States allow ‘open primaries’ where voters, regardless of their party affiliation, are allowed to participate. And three States, Washington, California and Nebraska, have adopted a ‘top-two’ primary system, where the top two vote-getters, regardless of their party affiliation, advance to the general election. This system makes it possible for two candidates with the same party affiliation (or independents) to advance to the general election. Nebraska utilizes the top-two primary system only for state legislative elections.
If these three developments, redistricting, open primaries and top-two primaries, catch on and become more the norm than the exception, it will enhance our democratic election process and reduce the sharp divide between the aisles in Congress. It will do so by increasing the participation in primary elections, making it harder for far-left or far-right (fringe) candidates to come out on top in their primaries and thus advance to the general election.
4) ABSENCE OF A NATIONAL STRATEGY
American public governance has no tradition or statute for the creation of a binding strategic plan that is built on broad consensus and transcends the shifting balance of power between the Republican and Democratic parties. As a result, we allow the party in charge to set the agenda without regard to the larger national needs and priorities. And, with the constant shift in control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, the interpretation of what needs to be done keeps changing. Each administration hurries to get policy changes implemented and resorts mostly to executive orders, since legislative actions are too hard to get through Congress or take too long to get accomplished during the four-year term of control of the White House. The Trump administration may not have completely succeeded in doing away with Obamacare, but it has otherwise been very busy and successful in reversing Obama age rule making, primarily in the regulatory realm. All of this is likely to be turned back again if and when the current occupant gets kicked out of the White House in 2020. So, the tug of war of political expediency continues and keeps the nation from getting the help it needs to solve its most pressing problems. In the meantime, a huge army of competent, dedicated and loyal civil servants, capable of solving problems, stands by as the politicians play their self-serving games of orders and countermands.
Big strategies take a long time to be developed and implemented and don’t fit in with the election-driven decision-making practices of our politicians. These realities cry out for a non-partisan definition of what the government needs to achieve in the interest of the prosperity, security and stature of the nation. Now more than ever is the country in need of the articulation of a national strategic plan, since the days of uncontested global dominance and hegemony are over. However, none of this was in sight four years ago and none of this is in sight today. A political system that does not mandate or even facilitate the creation of a long term strategic plan is duping the people it is supposed to serve and condemning the nation to underperformance, both against its potential and against its global competitors.
The world looks and feels different today from what it was in 2014 and it will look and feel different again in another four years. The difference stems primarily from the unforeseen rise of populism and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Nothing has been more affected by this than the character and the identity of the GOP. I am still incredulous that the Republican Party not only allowed a person with no political track record and without any bona fides conservative credentials to run on their ticket and that the voters carried him to victory.
Even more astonishing is that, since Trump’s election, GOP legislators have given him a free pass to toss out fundamental Republican beliefs in free trade, environmental stewardship, immigration and fiscal responsibility.
When it comes to public governance, we are always comforted by the strength of our Constitution and the separation of powers. But the separation of powers is only effective if we have a legislative branch and a judicial branch that are willing to push back on the executive branch when the latter gets off the rails.
I am not sure that I will live long enough to be able to see the Trump episode in the rear-view mirror. Will it be a four-year aberration that will be corrected by the voting public in 2018 and 2020, or will it signal a fundamental shift in the political landscape in the US and in the role, America plays in global affairs?
Short term, the insertion of a populist element in the political scene around Washington D.C. has only deepened the gridlock that had the political system locked up. The only thing of consequence passed by Congress during the first year of the Trump presidency is the GOP tax reform, that will soon enough have to be reversed or amended because it is on course of bankrupting the country. The gridlock is the result of the GOP control of both chambers of Congress and the refusal of the GOP representatives to acknowledge the ideological divide between (most of) them and the President. This show of party discipline has masked, for the most part, the ideological differences within the GOP delegation on Capitol Hill and thus secured the pat stand between two monolithic and near equally sized voting blocks. It will be interesting to see if the dynamics change after the midterm elections of 2018. If the Democrats succeed in taking control of the House and the Senate (which is a big if, given the lack of unity within their party), in theory, the possibility opens for the centrists in both parties to find each other in legislative activities that can begin to address the cracks in the building. Then the question will arise if the President can get Congress to sustain a veto, which he will most certainly issue against any bipartisan initiative that bypasses his office.
This review would not be complete without an analysis of the role of the media in the politics of the day. My first observation is that today’s media is much more occupied with disseminating opinion than facts. It is largely a function of the 24-hour news cycle that has to be filled. In spite of the constant alerts of ‘breaking news’, there is only so much factual news to be brought up, so the rest of the time needs to be filled with opinion and interpretation. That would not be all that detrimental if media channels had not largely organized along ideological lines and technology was not allowing us to select our news feed only from sources that espouse our own political beliefs and opinions.
Social media allow us to ‘befriend’ only those people and organizations that echo and support our points of view. All of this deepens the polarization not only in the ranks of the professional politicians but equally so amongst the voting (and non-voting) public. It makes reaching across the aisle a politically risky move, where it should be a frequently used tool in the political process. It also puts family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors at odds with each other. Freedom of the press, enshrined in the 1st Amendment, is a cornerstone of our democracy. But freedom comes with obligations and the media flaunt their obligations if they do not pursue the facts, the truth, with more vigor than they voice opinion. The best hope one can have for the role of the media is that they keep the politicians and the judiciary honest. That they have the capacity and willingness to separate facts from fiction and factual news from fake news. A free and independent press is a vital component of a functioning democracy. It is the watchdog that will alert the public to transgressions by any of the three branches of government against the Constitution and the rules of the game. Social media have opened the field to anyone with web access. This form of free speech is equally protected by the 1st Amendment. But we have yet to find an effective and constitutionally permitted way to protect ourselves from propaganda, fake news and untruths, cleverly disguised as ‘news’. In short, communications technology has complicated society’s quest for clarity, honesty and truth in media coverage of the political scene.
Based on all of the above, we come to the conclusion that much has changed and yet, much has stayed the same. Gridlock and polarization stand in the way of an improved political system and the leadership capable of breaking the impasse with popular support is absent. The country has made no progress in solving the most pressing problems the nation faces. Four years later, the rise in inequality, the absolute level of inequality and the glaring visibility of inequality together stand in the way of a healthier, more motivated and better performing nation. There is a direct connection – in most instances causality – between the inequality we see within the American population and the most pressing social ailments of our time. Inequality is expressed not only in difference in income or wealth, but also in difference in access to the best healthcare and the best education; the safety of the neighborhoods we live in. The burden of drugs, incarceration and military service falls disproportionately on the underprivileged. And the underprivileged are the ones who have to compete directly with the undocumented immigrants for their jobs.
My contention is that inequality will not be brought back to bearable proportion unless these most pressing ailments of our time are cured. That is a job for the government. And therein lies our Gordian knot: The cracks in our building will not be healed unless our system of public governance is restored to functionality; and inequality will not be brought back to acceptable proportions unless the cracks in our building are healed. It all hangs together and our destiny hinges on the linchpin of a functional system of public governance.
My book and the columns on my blog CASTNET COMMENTARY have been interpreted by some as criticism of my adopted country. That is a misinterpretation. I am a legal immigrant of choice and a permanent resident. My criticism is not directed at the country but at the manner in which it is getting led or misled. Others have tried to convince me that, in my pursuit of the exceptional America, I am a modern-day Don Quixote, chasing windmills with no basis in reality. That may be closer to the truth, if only because windmills are the most recognizable Dutch landmarks. But, if we only chase the realities of today and forego a foray into our imagination of what could be and should be, won’t we do a disservice to the ones coming after us, by not using our unique human capacity for intelligent creativity? As Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” and as Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
Today, America has a government of the people, but not a government by the people, nor a government for (all of) the people. What poor governance has pried apart, good governance will have to put back together. It is not the nation that fails its people, falling short of expectations, it is the political system combined with weak (or worse) leadership that fails the nation. What is our huge government apparatus for, with all of the enormous tax burden it entails, if it is not to serve the people by addressing and solving their problems?
America has made exceptional contributions to world civilization, in war and peace, in exploration, in science and technology, in creating wealth, and in advancing human rights. There is no denying that, in terms of its geography, natural resources, the size of its economy, and its relative youth as a nation, America is blessed unlike most any other nation on earth.
But I am convinced that America today is underperforming against its capabilities and I find the reason for that in the failure of our political system, and the people serving in elected office, to keep the nation from coming apart. The cracks in our building have only widened over the last four years and we are sitting by idle, fatalistically waiting for the building to crumble. We are more polarized than ever since the Civil War and we allow ourselves to be paralyzed in the process, unable to solve our problems, which should be eminently manageable given America’s wealth, resourcefulness and strong civil service component.
We refuse to come together and compromise on the way our problems will be solved. It takes high caliber leadership in the White House and on Capitol Hill to break the impasse. America has done it before and I’m confident it can do it again. But sometimes things have to get worse to the point of becoming untenable, before the nation pulls together. Change comes easier when the pain of staying with the same exceeds the pain and hassle of change.
At that point you pray first that the nation can absorb the shock and then for full political engagement of the younger generation and the presence of the kind of leadership that inspires a nation to right itself.