At one point during the 2016 presidential election, 95 percent of Republicans believed that Washington and the American political system were not working well; 83 percent of Democrats shared the same sentiment. Dissatisfaction with the political system is at an all-time high as more and more Americans think that government has stopped working for them. The endless bureaucracy and gridlock of the federal government have made Washington appear to be more of a problem than a solution. This phenomenon seems to these critics to have negatively impacted the constituents that government officials have sworn to serve, and it has garnered many accusations of sluggishness and futility. This flurry of commentary raises a pressing question: What in the governing process, if anything, has failed us?
As criticism of the government has grown, so has the partisan divide. Critics of contemporary politics frequently invoke images a failing democracy, catalyzed by an unpopular president. President Trump’s disapproval rating among Democrats is currently at 80 percent. Similarly, President Obama had a disapproval rating of 85 percent among Republicans by the time he left office in 2016. President Trump’s win in November was met with stiff resistance as many on the left predicted the end of freedom and democracy in the United States. President Obama’s election was met with many of these same accusations by people on the right.
But are these accusations a fair portrayal of the current state of politics? Despite these outcries, Obama served an eight-year tenure, and while he may have implemented many policies and laws that some would disagree with, our system of government is still intact. Once President Trump has finished his time in office, while he may have implemented policies and procedures that not all Americans agree with, the American system will likely still be intact as well. Perhaps the system is working just fine.
In fact, it is working precisely as it was intended to. Our system of law and government, set forth in the Constitution, has survived since its coming into force in 1789. Despite what political pundits and social media warriors claim will happen with the election of the opposition party’s candidate, the system was designed by the framers to handle the surges of political factions and candidates, while always protecting the rights and freedoms of its citizens. It is geared to prevent despotism from taking hold.
Much to the chagrin of the public today, the Founding Fathers purposefully allowed political gridlock. Regardless of the modern public’s frustration with the system, it is working exactly how the framers intended it to. Two hundred twenty-eight years after the Constitution was drafted, the United States and its citizens have not fallen under the rule of a despot or king and no faction has overtly seized control of the government.
When the Founding Fathers debated what the future system of government was to look like in the new republic, several different ideas were proposed. One viable vision of government was put forth by a group of people who referred to themselves as the Federalists. The Federalists believed in and proposed a system that largely coincides with the form of government that is still in place today. The most famous Federalists (even before the hit Broadway musical Hamilton) were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. True to the song in the musical, these three men got together to promote and win public support for the version of the Constitution that they favored. Within a span of six months, together, they published eighty-five essays defending and explaining the form of government they helped create. These essays became known as The Federalist Papers and explain the rationale for our constitutional system.
James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, has two especially famous essays among the 29 he wrote: Federalist 10 and Federalist 51. In Federalist 10, Madison looks back at historical democratic governments and concludes that each one reached the same end: despotism. He believed that the despot that eventually took power in a democratic government did so through the interference of factions in society. It is human nature for factions to form, Madison argues, because humans are inherently self-interested. Eventually, one of these factions gains enough of a majority that it is able to oppress minority factions, and it is then that despotism takes hold. When designing a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Madison concludes that factions are inevitable and the new system must find a way to keep these factions in check so that one faction doesn’t gain too much power.
Madison’s proposed solution to factions can be found in Federalist 51. There, Madison advocated for a separation of powers and other procedures to keep each branch in check.
When Madison proposed this solution, he had a few simple goals. First, by generating three separate branches of power, he hoped to create competition and jealousy between each branch. Such rivalry, he thought, would create a system in which the branches would, through a series of checks and balances, ensure that no one branch gained too much power. Within these branches there are varying lengths of turnover. Giving citizens the ability to elect their representatives and making the legislative process complex ensured that no one faction could gain too much power in a surge of support and head towards despotism. By creating gridlock and bureaucracy, Madison has ensured that the majority group never gains too much power over the minority groups.
Despite growing dissatisfaction with the system of government in the US, the system has in fact prevented the cries of despotism and oppression from becoming reality
If the Framers foresaw political gridlock, are we helpless to change the current state of the political environment? Though Madison, Hamilton, and the other Framers designed gridlock to protect against power surges, one could argue that we are now in a state of hyper-gridlock. This hyper-gridlock is not the fault of the system, however, but is instead the fault of the actors within it. Two key factors add to this excessive partisanship. One explanation draws from the social psychological phenomena of in-group/out-group bias and group polarization. These phenomena explain the human tendency to develop heightened levels of animosity towards opposing groups and ideas due to perceived threats to one’s own group. Group polarization further plays into this as it explains the tendency for groups of like-minded people to become more extreme in their beliefs when they are with each other. However, these psychological predispositions have been around for a long time and cannot necessarily account for today’s hyper-gridlock and partisanship.
Perhaps a better explanation of hyper-polarization comes from rhetoric employed by politicians: namely, crisis rhetoric. Crisis rhetoric began with President Nixon’s claim that the health care system was in a state of crisis and that it was doomed to fail within a decade. Fast-forward fifty years, and while still a mess, the health care system has yet to fail. But while the crisis never came, the use of crisis rhetoric continued and expanded with each president and candidate. From health care to border security to the welfare state, crisis rhetoric is employed almost daily by our government representatives. Robert Hackey argues in his book, Cries of Crisis, that this rhetoric has not led to solutions, but through fear, has instead driven people to fall in line behind their politicians, further widening partisan divides and intensifying the gridlock. This fear grows when executive leadership is not proactive in rallying the support of the entire electorate or of other politicians, and instead narrowly tailors their message just to their supporters.
Despite growing dissatisfaction with the system of government in the US, the system has, in fact, prevented the cries of despotism and oppression from becoming reality. It is instead the fear-mongering of the elected officials that continues to drive a wedge in between the American electorate, and that is where the problem must be addressed. As Madison intended, the American people should exercise their right to vote, and replace divisive representatives with those whose rhetoric is both forward thinking and substance-based. It is when we have representatives at all levels and branches of government who are focused on substance, civility, and solutions, that the system of government will work as intended again.