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.

Reader Discussion

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on July 02, 2018 at 09:52:39 am

I'd say that Congress' passivity is entirely rational. All of the social ire is directed onto the Executive and Judicial Branches. A Congressperson can lay low (lie low?) and then just surf the wave of his/her constituents' emotions. Good luck talking them back into their Constitutional role. For what does it profit a Congressman, that he shall gain responsibility, and lose his seat?

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Image of QET
on July 02, 2018 at 10:06:30 am

Yep, there is definitely some *low-down lying* going on!

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Image of gabe
on July 02, 2018 at 10:31:43 am

Wallner provides us with a fair analysis of what we presently observe in American governance.

What is absent is causation.

How did we come to be so beleaguered by strife? why does ambition no longer counter ambition.
Could it be that ambition has been replaced by *envy*?; that more base motives substitute for a formerly grander set of ambitions?

Is the Congress-Critter more devoted to his / her own continuance at the (now somewhat diminished) levers of power?

Are the citizenry more desirous of obtaining government largesse / protections?

We may, and often do, cast an accusatory glance at FDR (via Foley's *coalition building) for the proliferation of government interventions, programs and the subsequent dependence of the citizenry upon government.

Yet, it is something more. It is quite simply that under the ministrations of the Progressive elements of the Left, we have engendered a "purposive" model of government. In pursuit of this ever - near, but never quite attained, perfect society, we have seen fit to elevate "reason, science and expertise" to a historically unprecedented level of influence in both governance and our daily lives. Statistics uber alles!!!! All to advance numerous utopian delusions as to human / civil perfectability.

Of course, to impose the consequent *obligations* upon the citizenry, we must claim ultimate truth is on our side. There may be no argument with these newly "crafted" self-evident truths BECAUSE our purpose is good, well intentioned and the only proper and rational course for the polity. Ever so surely we progress toward our intended telos!
One has it on good authority. the experts tell us so!

Thus is political conflict replaced by PURPOSIVE government and the Legislative, not quite so *weak* as many would have us believe, exercises its influence as ombudsmen over the Executive Agencies assuring the proper dispensation of government largesse while simultaneously castigating the very same agencies.
In short, not only does the Legislative share the view of the "purpose" of government, it also gets to grant *favors* to the electorate.
Hey, this seems pretty *rational*.

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Image of gabe
on July 02, 2018 at 15:01:59 pm

Mr. Wallner states:

"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 to resolve their differences and compromise. "

That implies (requires?) a "judicial" function of legislators (the settling out of contending interest, obligations & rights).

Here is a bit from "The Good Society " by Walter Lippmann (now almost 75 years ago from the revisions of its 1923 origin; 95 years ago):

"When the legislator ceases to think of him-
self as an impartial judge among contending interests, he soon
adopts an imperial view of his function. He ceases to judge
causes among the people: he issues commands to the people, and
regards himself no longer as the representative of their true
will but as the providential contriver of their destiny. Against
this imperial view of the state, which comes down from the
Byzantine emperors and was revived in Europe by the study
of Roman law during the Renaissance, 8 the liberal movement
has always fought. The imperial view is that the official de-
crees the law according to his will rather than that the official
finds the law by judging causes. This is the legal theory of
absolutism. To that theory the modern collectivists and all the believers in legislative or executive supremacy have re-turned.

"The growing complaint of legislators that judges are legis-
lating is the obverse of the fact that lawmakers have ceased to
be judges. Legislators have come to think of themselves as
the lineal descendants of the Ceasars, and the heirs of their
sovereignty. Against this revival of the absolute state, the
courts have sought to provide a refuge. They have given
refuge to many interests that probably ought not to have it.
They have also given protection to many vital human interests
against the tyranny and arbitrariness of legislative majorities.
But their "judicial usurpation" would not have received so
much popular assent had men not realized that its complement
was the growing dictatorship of lawmakers. Yet two wrongs
do not make a right. Both are perversions of the liberal
state, arising from the failure to recognize that the legis-
lative function is only a more generalized form of the judi-
cial.. "

If we accept that the function and modes of actions of legislators is derivative of the function of the legislative body, Mr. Wallner's statement takes us to the function of Congress as a legislative "body." If we accept that the function of the legislative body is derivative of the (actual) functions of the governmental mechanism, we will find ourselves taken to the matters pointed out above by the Right Honorable Gabe.

Governments are generated by societies as facilities of means (or to provide means) responsive to the needs and wants of the specific society. Those facilities require what we have come to call "administration" in the exercise of their functions.

When society (a "body politic," e.g.) determines, or even passively accepts, that its governmental facility shall be a means, or shall provide means, for a particular objects (housing, education, police, etc., etc.) of some (even most) of its members, that government becomes "purposive." The trend has been to expand the facilities of "our" Federal government to encompass more and more diverse objectives of various elements of its members. This has expanded the requirements for administration , giving rise to the Federal Administrative State.

What we are now observing are the "collisions" (not strictly just "conflicts" in the former political sense) as to the multiplicity of objectives, the shift of adjudications to "administration, and the "purposive" become at "cross purposes," without any form of adjudication at the legislative level; simply continuous adding on of more purposes requiring more administration.

"Reformation" of the legislators will turn on "reformation of the legislative functions, which, will turn on revisions of the "purposive" functions (particularly their continuing expansions) that now dominate "our" Federal government.

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on July 02, 2018 at 23:54:27 pm

"What’s Wrong with American Politics"
Looking in all the wrong places ... worth every minute of your time to watch, imo.

In "The Swamp," Fearless Reps Expose the Corruption on Capitol Hill
Unlike many other politicians who have promised to take on the establishment and “drain the swamp,” Representative Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) is actually trying to do just that, and is taking some serious flak for his exposure of the Deep State and its agents on Capitol Hill.

In a video series entitled The Swamp, Massie, along with Representatives Dave Brat and Tom Garrett of Virginia, Ken Buck of Colorado, Rod Blum of Iowa, and Ted Yoho of Florida, are showing people “what happens behind the scenes in Congress.” To date, there are four episodes, each running about 10 minutes.

Besides pulling back the curtain to reveal the names and tactics of those who really pull the legislative levers in Congress, The Swamp videos make it very obvious that, although there are 435 members of the House of Representatives, the key decisions are made by a handful of very powerful leaders bent on controlling the country and that the betrayal is bipartisan.

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Image of Weed Hopper
Weed Hopper
on July 03, 2018 at 07:26:32 am

It is simpler than the lofty words of this article imply. The people have allowed their representatives to represent them without accountability. The people of this democracy have disengaged from the power plays, the perpetual campaigning and the open ills of Washington. So the media and politicians have created an unholy alliance of the 6 second salacious tells to incite the people and demand their attention. So when this 45 years of relative world peace comes to an end, then the people may reengaged. Or when the people realize the volume of political theft in financial negligence at the Federal level, then possible we can use modern technology and better models to value political use of taxpayer dollars and give the people some actual information to engage with.

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Image of Dan Clayton
Dan Clayton
on July 03, 2018 at 11:37:48 am

It leaves one heart broken to realize that although many heroic men and women fought the battle and sacrificed their lives to win the war, the battle still rages on.
What’s wrong with American politics is that it is no longer a reflection of our founding Judeo- Christian principles. “We are no longer a Christian Nation”, because we would rather render onto Caesar, what belongs to God.

Respect for the Sanctity of human life, and respect for the Sanctity of marriage, comes from God; Socialism denies that God is our Father, rendering onto Caesar, what has always belonged to God.

“As the family goes, so goes the Nation and the World.”- Saint John Paul II
With humanism, you will always end up worshipping a creature rather than our Creator; humanism is merely a form of atheistic materialism in disguise.

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Image of Nancy
on July 03, 2018 at 12:15:22 pm

The more gridlock there is, the less chance that the Congress will screw things up...

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Image of champ
on November 21, 2018 at 06:07:33 am

[…] issues with their opponents, and this is an important start. They accept that political conflict is an essential part of our system in a way that many before them did not, and they model the ways that one can offer real opposition […]

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Image of A Republican Party After Trump?
A Republican Party After Trump?

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.