Let’s face it: The American political system is broken.
The midterm elections were a stinging repudiation of President Obama, but Republicans should also feel chastened: A poll last year found Congress less popular than cockroaches.
So congratulations to those members celebrating election victories. But our democratic institutions are in trouble when they can’t outpoll cockroaches. Which didn’t even campaign.
“Politics is the noblest of professions,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1954, and politics in the past often seemed a bright path toward improving our country. President Clinton represented a generation that regarded politics as a tool to craft a better world, and Obama himself mobilized young voters with his gauzy message of hope. He presented himself as the politician who could break Washington’s gridlock and get things done — and we’ve seen how well that worked.
I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.
A national exit poll conducted by Edison Research found that a majority of voters disapproved of Republicans and Democrats alike, and only 20 percent trust Washington to do what’s right most or all the time.
Obama is licking his wounds in the White House, and he doesn’t seem to accept that the election is a judgment on his presidency. I’m sorry. When Democrats lose in Colorado and struggle in Virginia, when voters say they’re sending a message to the White House, it’s time for Obama to shake up his staff, reach out beyond his insular circle of longtime aides, and recalibrate.
Critics are right that the president should try harder to schmooze with legislators, although I’m skeptical that Republicans are that charmable. After all, some polls have shown more than a third in the Republican Party said he was born abroad and about one-fifth suspected that he could be the Antichrist.
Yet, it’s not just Obama who is looking ragged today. The entire political system is. Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal have charted the attitudes of the political parties back to 1879, and they found party polarization in recent years to be greater than at any time since their charts began.
That’s partly because Democrats have become more liberal, but mostly because Republicans have become more conservative — indeed, more conservative than at any time since 1879.
Politicians have also figured out what works for their own careers: playing to their base, denouncing the other side and blocking rivals from getting credit for anything. Since many politicians are more vulnerable in a primary than in a general election, there’s not much incentive for compromise.
After Obama took office, Republicans assiduously tried to block him, even shutting down the federal government. Republican governors prevented their own citizens from getting health insurance through federally financed Medicaid. I see that as obstructionism, but it paid off in these midterms.
Bravo to Obama’s comments Wednesday about trying to cooperate with Republicans on issues including early education. But I’m not holding my breath. Incentives today militate against bipartisan cooperation, and that’s one reason the current Congress is on track to be the least productive in the post-World War II era.
(Maybe we taxpayers could save money by paying members of Congress not by salary but by the piece, so much for each enacted law?)
One bright spot in the midterms was voter referendums. They did actually break the gridlock. Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana in some situations. Five states supported an increase in the minimum wage. Washington state approved universal background checks for gun purchases. California reduced prison sentences.
So even if politicians are stalemated, voters managed to get things done. Yet we also get the national government we deserve, and that’s an indictment of all of us.
I find America’s political dysfunction particularly sad because I’ve spent much of my journalistic career covering people risking their lives for democracy, and sometimes dying for it — from Taiwan to Ukraine, Congo to South Korea. It was 25 years ago that I saw people massacred near Tiananmen Square for demanding political change. They risked their lives because they dreamed that democracy would improve their lives and give them greater freedom and dignity.
For those of us in the United States it was easy. We painlessly inherited democracy, yet I’m afraid we’ve botched it.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.