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The Failure of America’s Political System – Understanding Hyper-Partisanship


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If you are frustrated, disgusted, and fed up with the failure of Congress and the President to address the primary issues facing the country, you’re not alone. According to a Pew Research Poll, more than 80% of citizens don’t trust the government to do what is right most of the time. The fiasco over raising the federal debt to maintain America’s unrivaled credit standing was just the latest example of a Federal Government so polarized that basic legislation and critical appointments are almost impossible.

International worries about our political dysfunction and its causes have echoed across the world in foreign newspaper headlines. On July 13, 2011, the UKs “Telegraph” published a story entitled “System Failure: U.S. Democracy is Nearing its Limits.” On October 17, 2013, Germany’s “Siegel Online International” led with “America’s political dysfunction threatens its global leadership.” Canada’s “Toronto Star” wrote on October 16, 2013 that “Adversaries turn into enemies in U.S. politics.” And, France’s “Le Monde” ran a story on May 16, 2013 titled “Billionaires unchained.”

The questions naturally arise: How did we get to this point? And can our system be fixed?

SOURCE: Gallup®Politics, June 13, 2013
SOURCE: Gallup®Politics, June 13, 2013

A System Designed for 1787

The Founding Fathers – the 55 delegates who drafted and signed the Constitution – intended to establish a government that was much more democratic than any the world had ever seen. Reacting to the monarchical system in England, they strove to define certain rights for American citizens that could not be taken away.

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Yet, a government ruled by a majority – and therefore susceptible to mob rule – scared them. As a consequence, they founded a constitutional republic where power is spread and counter-balanced among three branches of government: Congress, the president, and the courts. Passing laws is a slow, deliberate process that requires approval from all three of these branches.

This system of checks and balances enabled America to become a superpower economically, militarily, and morally by the 20th century. Unfortunately, our complicated and overly legalistic system can be a disadvantage in today’s fast-moving world with rapidly changing technology, open borders, dependent economies, and international competition.

In order to achieve a union among the 13 original states, the constitutional delegates compromised to allow each state equal representation in the Senate, inadvertently creating a structure in which a determined minority of citizens can effectively stalemate the wishes of the greater majority. The requirement that both branches of Congress – the Senate and the House of Representatives – must agree in order for a bill to become law was deliberately established with the thinking that the Senate’s longer terms would give it greater immunity from the pressures of biannual elections, thus making it the more conservative body.

House of Representatives

In the first Congress (1789-1791), the House of Representatives totaled 65 members. By the 112th Congress, this number grew to 435 representatives, at which time the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 established that number as fixed in order to keep the size of the body manageable.

In 1776, each congressman represented about 30,000 citizens. Based upon the 2010 census, each member of the House represented about 711,000 citizens. As our population grows and shifts, individual states lose and add representatives to reflect their relative populations. Since 1940, the Northeast and Midwest regions of the country have lost 59 representatives to the South and West regions, the greatest growth going to the West.

Change in Number of Seats in US House of Representatives by Region: 1940-2010
Change in number of seats in U.S. House of Representatives by region: 1940-2010


The Senate is composed of two members from each state, each serving a six-year term. Since only a third of all senators are subject to election every two years, the founders hoped the body would have a greater sense of continuity and, as James Madison said, would proceed “with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom” than the House. Until 1913 and the passage of the 17th Amendment, senators were appointed by their respective state legislators, rather than being popularly elected.

Since each state has two senators, the less populous states wield substantial power. For example, seven states – Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming – have only one member in the House and together represent 1.6% of its total votes, but they collectively have 14 senators representing 14% of the Senate. Based upon a 2012 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, each California senator represents more than 19 million people while each Wyoming senator represents about 288,000 people. Since 51 votes are necessary to pass a bill in the Senate, a coalition of the 26 least populous states representing slightly more than nine million people could thwart the wishes of more than 300 million people living in the other 24 states.

History of Split Congresses

Even George Washington had to contend with a Congress controlled by two different parties. During the 3rd and 4th congressional sessions, anti-administration elements – Democratic-Republicans – controlled the House while his allies, the Federalists, controlled the Senate.

Congress has now been split between two parties for 21 of the 109 sessions since Washington. Republican Ronald Reagan worked with a split Congress for three of the four sessions during his two terms, the fourth session controlled completely by Democrats. Republican George H.W. Bush worked only with a Democrat-controlled Congress during his single term, while Bill Clinton’s Democrats controlled the 103rd Congress, his first, and Republicans controlled both houses in the 104th through 106th sessions.

George W. Bush’s party controlled Congress for three-quarters of his service – only the 110th Congress was controlled by the Democrats. Barack Obama’s Democrat party controlled both houses for the 111th session following his election, but has dealt with a split Congress since, Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans controlling the House.

There are three general combinations that can determine the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government:

  1. President, Senate, and House controlled by a single party.
  2. President controlled by one party, Senate and House by the other.
  3. President and one of the congressional branches controlled by one party, the other branch controlled by the opposing party.

The last of these is most likely to wind up in stalemates and deadlocks. While some major issues do get addressed – usually because of their critical nature – more often than not, parties fail to find common ground due to ideological differences and political maneuvering.

Government Authority Role

Exaggerated Partisanship

There has rarely been total agreement about the role of government and its authority over citizens. As a consequence, government policies regularly and slowly change to reflect popular agreement when it can be achieved. Fortunately, for most of America’s history, elected officials have been able to put aside partisan politics and enact laws for the benefit of the country and the common good. Nevertheless, our national history does tend to encounter cycles of extreme partisanship.

The partisanship preceding the Civil War led to a duel between Democrat Jonathan Cilley of Maine and Whig Congressman William Graves of Kentucky, during which Cilley was killed. In addition, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, and the severe caning of Massachusetts Republican Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Democratic House member Preston Brooks took place on the floor of the Senate. It was reported that by the 1850s, congressmen took guns onto the floor of the House to protect themselves.

Guns are no longer permitted in the Capitol – although Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas attempted in 2011 to introduce a bill allowing them – but the two major political parties are more polarized today than at any time since 1879, according to research published by the website Voteview.

David A. Moss of the Harvard Business School writes in the March 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review that “the real problem with American politics is the growing tendency among politicians to pursue victory above all else – to treat politics as war – which runs counter to basic democratic values, and may be crippling Washington’s ability to reach solutions that capture the smartest thinking of both camps.” In their 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein claim that we are now in a state of “asymmetric polarization,” with the Republican Party implacably refusing to allow anything that might help the Democrats politically, no matter the cost.

Factors Encouraging Hyper-Partisanship

According to Peter Orszag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and current vice chairman of the Institutional Clients Group at Citigroup, Inc., partisanship is encouraged by a variety of social factors, including the voluntary segregation of people along political lines – even including the neighborhoods in which we live. This situation creates a self-fulfilling cycle in which the only information we believe is reinforced by our small community of like-minded friends and political commentators.

Other factors encouraging hyper-partisanship include the following:

1. Challenge of American Myths

Patriotism is universal. Citizens of every country believe their society is superior to every other nation. Americans are particularly proud of what we have accomplished, and rightfully so. Exaggerated, or even invented, truths, however, grow most powerful when they become myths – “persistent, pervasive, and unrealistic,” as described by President John Kennedy.

Here are some of the more powerful and enduring American myths:

  • The Romance of the Past. As Tea Party organizer Jeff McQueen says, “Things we had in the ’50s were better. If a mom wanted to work, she could, if she didn’t, she didn’t have to. Tell me how many mothers work now? Now it’s a necessity.” Longing for the way things were, like McQueen does, ignores the great technological and social advances of the last half-century, as well as the fact that many Americans, minorities and women, suffered discrimination and persecution.
  • Equal Opportunity for All. This myth goes hand-in-hand with self-reliance: “I did it by myself – why can’t they do the same?” However, it ignores the fact that the benefits of industrialized countries are rarely available to all strata of society on an equal basis. The son or daughter of a tenant farmer in Mississippi does not have the same opportunities as the scion of a Wall Street banker, nor the child of a software engineer in Silicon Valley. Differences in family stability, expectations, community mores, and morals all play a role in determining access to opportunity, as do education (early and secondary), familial and social relationships, and finances. Those who arise from, or even survive, childhoods in some of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods are truly exceptional people – not evidence of equal opportunity.
  • The Great Melting Pot. The idea of America being a melting pot where members of different ethnic, racial, and national origin combine to form a harmonious whole has been popular since the late 1700s, glorified by writers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Frederick Jackson Turner. Unfortunately, this view is more romantic than real. Immigrants historically have lived in isolated communities until they reached critical mass and transformed their neighborhoods into pockets of their own culture. Little Italys, Chinatowns, and Spanish barrios exist in cities and towns across the country. Hispanics – now the largest minority, with most coming from a single country, Mexico – are influencing culture and politics in many states, representing 31% of the population of California and 28% of Texas. Attracting a significant portion of these new voters is a matter of life or death for the political parties and a major factor in the redrawing of congressional districts.

As our established myths have been challenged by reality, many Americans today feel threatened, believing that their way of life is under attack by religious, social, and political enemies. This environment of fear is kindled and intensified by a 24/7 news cycle comprised of irresponsible politicians, journalists, and social commentators, unrestrained by truth or logic, who pander to a public struggling to adjust to sweeping changes in technology, the economy, and society at large.

2. Gerrymandering

Every decade following a census, the 435 congressional districts are reapportioned and redrawn to reflect population shifts in a process called “redistricting.” Politicians understand that the ability to draw one’s district to reflect a majority of voters to a particular political party is critical to maintaining power. According to Robert Draper in the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic, this process “has become the most insidious practice in American politics – a way, as the opportunistic machinations following the 2010 census made evident, for our elected leaders to entrench themselves in 435 impregnable garrisons from which they can maintain power while avoiding political reality.”

The 2012 election demonstrated the Republican Party’s superiority in the redistricting wars, providing a large majority of seats in the House of Representatives, even though a Democratic president won the majority of the popular votes across all districts. Their strategy, described perfectly in the October 3, 2013 issue of the The Economist, was based upon winning numerous districts with a comfortable – though not extravagant – majority (by margins of 15% to 30%) while forcing Democrats into tightly packed districts of their constituents.

Princeton professor Sam Wang, a noted poll aggregator, as well as a neuroscientist and statistician, claims that Republican gerrymandering led to a swing in margin of at least 26 seats, almost the size of the new majority in the House. The advantages were especially egregious in the states of Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Because Republicans now come from very safe districts, generally requiring vote swings of 10% or more to lose their seats, they are increasingly immune from popular opinions, even widespread anger from the public over the 2013 government shutdown and national debt increase. Their safety and desire to appease the extreme members of their party is likely to lead to further confrontations and deadlocks.

Campaign Running Costs

3. Campaign Finance

According to The New York Times, presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney respectively spent $985.7 million and $992 million during the 2012 election campaign. These figures do not include money spent by nonprofit groups, which are not required to file with the Federal Election Commission and whose donors can be anonymous due to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling.

The cost to run for the Senate or House of Representatives is also expensive, estimated by the New York Daily News at $10.5 million for the former and $1.7 million for the latter. It is reasonable to assume that a big donor would expect some influence or benefit as a result of large contributions, leading the more cynical observers to conclude that “politicians are bought and paid for” before they assume office. Certainly, the possibility of a quid pro quo exists.

The largest single donor in the last election cycle was Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson who, along with his wife, gave Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates $95 million, according to the Huffington Post. Mr. Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation is currently struggling with the Federal Government over tax revenues, as well as the Justice Department and SEC investigations into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act relating to money-laundering and international bribery. Whether Adelson expects favorable treatment for his political contributions would be conjecture at best.

As a consequence of the magnitude of funds raised and the secrecy behind those efforts, Frank Vogl, former Senior World Bank official and international reporter wrote in the Huffington Post on July 26, 2013, that “the American political system, especially that part of which concerns the election of public office holders, is broken.” He also claimed that the lack of regulations and visibility governing extremely wealthy individuals who donated tens of millions of dollars to candidates who supported their issues made a mockery of the democratic process.

survey released by the bipartisan Committee for Economic Development in June 2013 suggested that than 87% of U.S. business executives believe the campaign finance system is in poor shape or broken, and is in need of major reform or a complete overhaul. However, it is unclear whether business executives are concerned that the current rules are too strict or should be further loosened.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case which deals with the issue of individual political contribution limits. According to Burt Neuborne, law professor and founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, if the limits are removed by the court’s decision, “500 people will control American democracy. It would be ‘government for the 500 people,’ not for anybody else – that’s the risk.” While the ruling has not yet been made, Chief Justice John Roberts has indicated that he is prepared to strike down limits on individual contributions.

4. Voter Apathy

Since 1932, voter participation in presidential elections has ranged from a low of 49% in 1996 (Clinton vs. Dole) to a high of 62.8% in 1960 (Kennedy vs. Nixon). Turnout in midterm elections is even lower, peaking at 48.7% in 1966 (President Johnson) and finding a floor of 36.4% in 1986 (President Reagan) and 1998 (President Clinton).

Americans generally have lower turnouts in their elections than other established democracies, which average 73% voter participation. Some cynics justify the existing deadlock as evidence that our political system does work, claiming that people have a choice and have chosen to let the richest and the most extreme citizens run America, thus taking the responsibility and effort of self-government off our shoulders. Our inalienable rights do include the right to withdraw as active participants in the governance of the nation, and we have done so in droves.

SOURCE: Center for the Study of the American Electorate, American University, September 7, 2010
SOURCE: Center for the Study of the American Electorate, American University, September 7, 2010

One consequence of growing voter apathy is the increasing influence of extreme minorities in each political party. Voter participation is particularly low in primary elections where candidates are selected for state and national office. According to 2010 voter data research, the percentage of eligible citizens who voted fell from a modern high of 32.3% in 1958 to an average of 10.5% of eligible voters for Republicans and 8.7% for Democrats in 2012.

In 2010, Curtis Gans, lead researcher at the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, warned, “These figures speak to the falling away of an ever larger slice of the population from active political participation and the continuing decline in public involvement with the major political parties, reducing their ability to serve as forces of cohesion within the American polity. All indications are that this situation will get worse, if it ever gets better.”

The influence of a committed group, often bound by a single issue, is multiplied in midterm elections – especially in those states with closed primaries where voters must be registered party members.

This advantage has been particularly exploited by the Tea Party in Republican elections. Ted Cruz, the controversial junior senator from Texas, was elected in 2012, having achieved the nomination by winning a run-off among 1,111,124 Republican voters with 55% of the vote. Since Texas is essentially a one-party state (Republican), Cruz was easily elected with 4,456,599 of the 7,993,851 votes cast, even though the total votes represented less than one-half of eligible voters.

Final Word

Before losing hope that our government is doomed to eternal conflict, and eventually failure, consider that the rise and fall of extreme partisanship has occurred regularly since the country’s founding. Politicians seeking to be elected must distinguish themselves from the established pols ensconced in office.

A successful strategy is often to attack the incumbent and advocate a more extreme position, appealing to the disgruntled and disappointed. However, extremism merely begets extremism until the system breaks – signs of which include the failure to extend the debt ceiling, pay the nation’s debt, or maintain our premier status as the world’s greatest economy. At that point, aspiring office seekers must advocate compromise and moderation, contrasting again with partisan incumbents. Extremism, like wildfires or plagues, eventually burns out and is replaced by periods of rebuilding and new growth.

Do you favor compromise between politicians or a government restrained by political battle?


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Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.