The Urgent Need to Repair Our Broken Politics

With social and economic mobility nearly frozen, Americans are retreating into ideological cocoons and civil unrest is growing.

Members of Congress sing "God Bless America" on the steps of the Capitol on Sept. 12, 2011, in remembrance of the 9/11 attacks.
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Sept. 11, 2017, 8 p.m.

An article in Washington Monthly caught my eye the other day. It compared the United States today to Germany between the two World Wars. As a rule, I’m wary of historical analogies. It seems that the closer you examine them, the less convincing they become. But James Bruno, a veteran of 23 years as a diplomat in the State Department and now a best-selling author, makes some compelling points.

“Saddled by a punitive peace imposed by its erstwhile enemies, post-World War I Germany, under the Weimar Republic, slid into fourteen years of political gridlock, civil unrest and social and economic chaos. … Corporate and labor leaders, the landed aristocracy, and other interest groups shortsightedly focused on their individual self-interests at the expense of the nation’s. Wealth and income inequality grew.” The Nazi Party and other extremist factions surged.

Germany between the wars creates an inflammatory analogy, but some of Bruno’s words strike a chord today. “Years of political gridlock”—box checked. “Civil unrest”—box checked. “Social and economic chaos”—box checked. The United States is by no means the second coming of the Weimar Republic, but it’s clear that our social fabric has been fraying for the last 20 or 30 years.

While the term ‘winner-take-all’ overstates America’s economic imbalance, it is more right than wrong. Some experts say that social and economic mobility in the United States is now less than in Britain, a country that for centuries was known for its rigid class system. Sure, there are still Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories in America, but social scientists and economists say these are far rarer than a half-century ago.

A pain specialist at one of our nation’s leading medical centers told me earlier this year that while many Americans become addicted to opioids after prescriptions to alleviate physical pain from injury or illness, many more are self-medicating for emotional pain, escaping lives barren of opportunity. Economists now say that a part of the decline in the labor participation rate in recent years is due to people who, because of opioid addiction, have left the workforce.

There is no question that much of our political process is fundamentally broken. The connection between the governing and the governed is hanging by a thread. People don’t think that the political process can bring about urgent change. Civil unrest is now increasingly punctuated by violence. Racial tensions are getting worse, not better.

The Washington Post on Monday quoted Josh Holmes, a highly regarded Republican strategist and a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying, “There is an element of the core base in both the Democratic and Republican Party that is more nonideological and antiestablishment than any other aspect of their political view.” Holmes continued, “Taken to its logical conclusion, that means that they will support anybody regardless of their ideology that is intent on opposing the powers that be.”

Holmes’s remarks reminded me of a dockside conversation that I had a few weeks ago with a Maine lobsterman. He had a pronounced antipathy toward President Trump, but he espoused some distinctly Trumpian views of Washington and government. Yet, in the next breath, he was complimenting Bernie Sanders and blasting Democrats for choosing Hillary Clinton over Sanders for the presidential nomination last year.

Increasingly we are seeing people gravitating to partisan news coverage, on both the right and the left, so that a large proportion of Americans have moved into ideological echo chambers. Everything they read or hear reinforces their predispositions and makes them more intolerant of opposing views. The Right can blame Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Left can blame Donald Trump, but the polarization preceded any of them.

Writing on the 16th anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11 makes me recall the brief period of unity that our country experienced after the horrendous events of that day. The harmony took poignant form when members of the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, gathered on the Capitol steps that night and sang “God Bless America.” But not long after that, the fight over whether we should invade Iraq interrupted that brief period of political unity, and now things are worse than before.

My wife calls me a pathological optimist, which makes my dire view entirely uncharacteristic. Our country desperately needs someone, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, who will rise above politics with a more unifying message than we have seen in recent years from candidates from either party. The vagaries of the Electoral College effectively mean that this person has to come from one of the two major parties, although an independent candidate might make the most sense. The question is whether our political parties and their nomination processes can produce a unifying candidate.

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