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The Carletonian

Our government’s problems are systemic, not personal

<h has been written about the seemingly historic level of distrust in our government, and specifically in congress. Currently,’s average of national congressional approval ratings places the level of voter disapproval of congress at 71.1% and approval at only 15.3%. “Washington is out of touch, those politicians in the capital are all a bunch of bums, kick ‘em all out!” We hear these sentiments often; they are part of a general anti-establishment and anti-incumbent mindset sweeping the nation in a time of crisis and incredible hardship.

As members of a democracy, the easiest way of affecting the actions of our government is exercising our right to vote. So what do we need to do to change our political system? Kick out all the bums! Put in a new group of people who are willing to speak up for the people!

Unfortunately, this would do little to fix our government’s problems. Although I would grant that incompetence is certainly present in congress, it is very much the exception rather than the rule. Our political problems, rather, are systemic and not personal. We know this because although the anti-incumbent rhetoric seems to have become inflamed during the current economic downturn, it is a sentiment that is nothing new to this country. Then-Senator Obama wrote eloquently in his book The Audacity of Hope about all of the constraints on a senator or representative that eventually seem to transform enthusiastic public servants interested in governing to self-interested political machines running constant campaigns and sacrificing their ethics. My friend Jeff Lawrence has this saying: “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional system, every system is perfectly structured to get the results it is currently getting.” Furthermore then, if we keep seeing the same problems even when the personnel inside keep changing, perhaps it is the system that needs changing and not necessarily the people.

Here are a few examples of how the system is flawed:

1. The media’s emphasis on sound bites and covering and creating drama and controversy–as President Obama says, the who’s up and who’s down political games in Washington–makes it incredibly difficult for politicians to think about governing rather than political gamesmanship. In a system where thoughtful and even-tempered analysis and critiques do not get ratings, politicians are forced to act, well, newsworthy. And as Obama writes, politicians are dependent on the media to be their main vehicles for getting their messages out. With this being the case, it seems politicians have no choice but to conform their styles to what will get broadcast, even if their rhetoric and actions are hardly conducive to a productive atmosphere.

2. Campaign finance is a well-known issue that is increasingly at the foreground of conversations about governmental reform. Without diving too deeply into the argument about what constitutes speech, it is obvious that money has an overwhelming influence on a candidate’s electoral chances. The interests that have a lot of money, therefore, have an unbelievably disproportionate ability to influence those chances. Their influence and form of publicity further distorts the messages of candidates during the campaign and binds their actions while in office. These systemic realities create the situation then, where politicians can not make the difficult choices necessary for moving our nation forward. In addition, they cannot effectively communicate with their constituents to explain those decisions. This is real leadership work: helping the people adapt to a changing world. But there is little incentive to make the difficult yet right vote when there is no way for the politician to explain it effectively in the 30 seconds needed to reach his or her constituents. Our current system increasingly dis-incentivizes courage.

3. The senate just does not seem to be working. An article from New York Magazine does a great job of outlining many of the structural and systemic problems in the most deliberative body. Explaining how the Senate is not supposed to be like the House, how it is supposed to be more shielded from the volatile whims of the citizenry, Jennifer Senior explains how the Senate’s partisan polarization has hurt its ability to be a real check on the Executive branch and a distinctive body from the House.

In essence, all three of these issues are part of a singular systemic problem: communication with, and the involvement of, constituencies. In the 24/7 media world where politics are covered more closely than before, there is much more transparency and therefore much more constituency involvement, at least on the surface.

But this increased transparency and coverage has created an environment where advertising and messaging are a daily operation. In addition, in a media where the sound bite and brief quote reins supreme over the long and thoughtful answer to an actually complicated issue, the shorter messages are more effective. Furthermore, a nonstop news cycle means a nonstop demand for content, not only from outlets but also from politicians, creating an environment that is highly political and takes the emphasis off of legislating and onto partisan battles, thus we have a nonstop campaign.

So what needs to happen? There are two sides to the equation, and each side presents a difficult collective action problem. In Congress, senators and representatives need to realize the problems and collectively come out with new campaign finance reforms and emphases on changing the partisan nature of their rhetoric. But this alone won’t do anything if the general public does not acknowledge the system’s problems and their role in sustaining them. For instance, the only reason messaging is most effective in small, fragmented pieces is because people accept it. The only reason polarizing rhetoric is taking the day on the news is because that’s where the ratings are; it’s more entertaining. If people want a better working political system they need to also put it on themselves to be more educated and thoughtful constituents. They must demand thoughtful analysis and more moderate dialogue. And lastly, they must realize the reason why money rules elections and campaigns is because advertisements and sound bites are the only ways many people learn about candidates. Therefore, people need to start demanding more of themselves. They need to place a bigger emphasis on doing their homework on candidates, really learning about their positions. I know this takes time, but a democracy can only work with an engaged and educated citizenry. The citizenry, therefore, needs to stop accepting the ads they see and the sound bites they hear, and learn about our politics and our candidates for themselves.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist.

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