Why such a polarized process? | Rich Elfers

“While American politics has always been a shrill, partisan, and ugly business going back to the Founding Fathers, we have rarely been so polarized and so unable to execute even the basic functions of the government, much less tackle the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country.”

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  • Wednesday, September 3, 2014 1:26pm
  • Opinion

“While American politics has always been a shrill, partisan, and ugly business going back to the Founding Fathers, we have rarely been so polarized and so unable to execute even the basic functions of the government, much less tackle the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country.”

These are the words of Robert M. Gates, former secretary of defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Gates goes on to give six reasons for this polarization of Congress that he saw under both presidents in his book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”

The first reason Gates gives for the polarization is the constant “take-no-prisoners” attitude that has driven the moderates in both parties out of Congress. According to Gates, the very definition of moderation has transformed into something nearer to a person “lacking principles” and offering compromise tantamount to “selling out.”

These changes in attitude have evolved over decades.

The second reason given for these changes is gerrymandering, the creation of congressional districts by state partisans, in such a way that only 50 to 60 seats of the 435 in the House of Representatives are not “safe” for either party.  The last redistricting occurred after the 2010 census.

I remember how the voting districts were determined by horse-trading between Democrats and Republicans. The results were that the incumbents were given virtually guaranteed seats in their districts, making me wonder why I should bother to vote for any candidate for the House.

During the Cold War that lasted from 1945 to the fall of the USSR in 1991, there was a need for the two political parties to cooperate. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no longer the pressure to work together for the common good. This is Gates’ third reason for the current dysfunction. It is apparent that being the only superpower has not been good for this nation.

As a fourth reason, Gates bemoans the loss of power by committee chairs who could wheel and deal to come to agreement and to enforce their decisions. This changed when chairs were appointed solely by seniority.

The need to constantly raise campaign money changed the dynamics and the priority of elected officials in Congress. This is Gates’ fifth reason. The imposition of the three-day Congressional workweek from Tuesday to Thursday contributed to the weakening of bipartisanship. It used to be that members of Congress would room together, eat and play cards together, building rapport and trust with each other in the process.

Gates attributes his sixth cause to the changing media. There used to be only three major networks and a handful of newspapers that filtered out the negatives.  Now there are hundreds of cable networks, blogs and the infamous 24-hour news cycle that both dilutes and ignores the journalists who write. Too much competition and information can be as bad as too little.

Now, the more acidic the news coverage, the more popular and profitable networks become, only increasing the rift between views.

In short, the way to stop this dysfunction is for elected officials to put the good of the nation above loyalty to their party.

Gates’ solution is for both the president and Congress to start being civil and to start listening. Both parties should quit distorting the facts and demonizing those who differ.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the return to civility happening any time soon. Perhaps the only way to bring back moderation in our government is for the United States to see the rise of another superpower that will force us to quit tearing ourselves apart and start working together again. Sadly, if another superpower or powers arise, this will only put our nation at risk of another world war. There is no perfect solution for our partisan dysfunction.


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Richard Elfers is a columnist, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor.
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