What's Wrong with American Politics

American politics does not make much sense.

Millions of people from across the political spectrum are frustrated with the status quo in Washington and the gridlock in Congress that has become its defining feature. But still, the status quo persists.

Of course, control of Congress and the presidency alternates frequently between Democrats and Republicans. Yet despite the constant activity generated by the tumultuous nature of electoral politics, Congress remains mired in gridlock and the people remain frustrated. This suggests that partisan conflict outside of Congress is not the underlying cause of its dysfunction.

In reality, the inaction we observe results from the absence of conflict inside the House of Representatives and the Senate. In other words, the problem is how members of Congress think about politics.

In a subtle yet consequential shift, most members no longer see Congress as the pre-eminent venue in which to engage in politics on behalf of the people they represent in order to resolve their differences and compromise. In lieu of the conflict such a process would inevitably generate between members with different policy views, there appears to be bipartisan agreement that executive branch agencies and the federal judiciary are more appropriate venues for making controversial decisions.

Yet officials in executive branch agencies and the courts make decisions by substituting reason and technocratic expertise for the messy realities of republican politics. In doing so, they expunge the concept of legitimate political conflict from politics altogether. This leads to popular frustration with the status quo.

Acknowledging this reality suggests that fixing Congress requires looking beyond the daily posturing that characterizes congressional activity at present to better understand why members, either consciously or subconsciously, perceive the conflict that arises out of genuine deliberation as something to be avoided at all costs.

Properly understood, politics represents the space in which our lives unfold in community with others. And republican politics requires the existence of a shared space in which the political activity of citizens can occur. In Athens, it was denoted by the polis. In Rome, it was the res publica. And in America, the institutional venues established by the Constitution create the space where politics takes place.

We need a shared space in which to make decisions affecting society because human beings are all equal. They are all equal only in the sense that they are all different. That is, no two people can be considered the same in any respect other than the fact that they are each unique individuals possessing their own abilities, characteristics, interests, hopes and fears. And because people with different views participate in politics on the basis of equality, political activity inevitably generates conflict in the space where politics occurs. Put simply, political conflict is an essential and legitimate element in the process by which people come together on the basis of equality to resolve their differences and compromise.

Needless to say, this is not how we think about politics today. We instead hold politics in contempt. That is why we almost always look outside of the political realm for solutions to political problems. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that imposing objective truths on citizens is the only way to end political dysfunction.

The problem with defining politics in this way is that it makes no room for human difference. The definition is thus incompatible with life in a free society. This is because we assume unquestioningly that such truths reside outside of the political sphere and can thus be ascertained only by individuals engaged in contemplative or rational reflection (i.e., philosophers or scientists). Once identified, these truths are then presented as self-evident, and the political activity of previously free citizens is reduced to mere execution in pursuit of their realization and implementation.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there is no such thing as universal truths residing outside of the political realm. The great natural law tradition underpinning western civilization from Sophocles’ Antigone to Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail to the present day is a powerful reminder that truth is not relative.

Rather, it simply means that legitimizing the right to govern on universal truth discerned outside of the political realm is inconsistent with freedom. This distinction is made clearer by considering the problem presented by compelling obedience to supposedly self-evident truths (and the government’s decisions that flow from them) when the broader citizenry does not accept or understand their self-evidence in the first place.

In a free society, obedience can only be legitimately compelled by persuasion. At bottom, political rule requires rhetoric (i.e., the act of persuasion) to convince citizens to abide by the decisions government makes. And equal legislators in government need rhetoric to persuade their colleagues that their proposed course of action is the correct one.

In that way, persuading citizens and legislators via speech and debate is the sine qua non of politics. Citizens affirm their individuality by taking part in such activity. And in the process, they contribute to a greater awareness of what is needed to create and maintain a just community. When obedience is secured by persuasion alone, every citizen is a ruler and every citizen is ruled. That is the essence of republican politics.

But this is not compatible with our understanding at present because persuasion engages opinion (i.e., political activity) and not truth (i.e., philosophical or scientific activity). The way we think about politics implies the inferiority of the former to the latter. This leads us to devalue the role that persuasion plays in making a free society possible. It also makes us less tolerant of the conflict republican politics generates.

In contrast to today’s view, James Madison considered political activity to be an essential element in creating and maintaining a community based on justice and the general good. This is because he recognized that, given the fundamental equality of human beings (i.e., the fact that they are all different), conflict was inescapable in republican politics. In an October 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson, he writes, “We know however that no society ever did or can consist of so homogeneous a mass of citizens … In all civilized societies, distinctions are various and unavoidable.”

Madison further argues in Federalist 10 that the virtuous community on which successful republican governments must be based is only possible in a large republic with many different interests that are in constant conflict with each other. Only in such a system could a shared space – one that would permit citizens to resolve their differences and compromise without succumbing to the tyranny of the majority – be created and maintained. Or, as he put it more bluntly to Jefferson, “Divide et imperia, the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain qualifications the only policy by which a republican can be administered on just principles.”

In Federalist 51, Madison similarly argues that individual liberty is dependent on conflict that arises inevitably out of the multiplicity of interests in society:

Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.

Madison believed that this condition must be met to make the just community a reality. “In the extended Republic of the United States,” he asserts, “and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good.”

Thinking about politics in such terms helps us recognize the central role conflict plays in making the government work. By extension, adopting a Madisonian perspective will help to identify reforms that will strengthen Congress’ lawmaking capacity and end the dysfunctional status quo.

Rather than viewing it as a negative influence that must be neutralized, we must acknowledge the inevitability of political conflict that arises when equal citizens engage in political action. Only after having done so are we in a position to channel such conflict for constructive purposes and thus able to forge compromise agreements in Congress. In doing so, we follow in the footsteps of James Madison and his fellow delegates at the Federal Convention meeting in Philadelphia 231 years ago. The Constitution they crafted that summer established a government that depends on political conflict to work. The separation of powers, bicameralism, federalism, regular elections and indirect representation all channel conflict between different groups in our extended republic to safeguard individual liberty and keep tyranny at bay without departing from the republican principle of majority rule. This is not a claim that all political activity is of equal value. Some causes are clearly better than others. But in a free society, the good causes can only be distinguished from the bad via a political process.

Conflict is inescapable in a free society. And it is the essential element in American politics. Without it, our system cannot work. Ambition cannot counteract ambition. And tyranny becomes inevitable.