McClaughry: American politics gone insane

By John McClaughry

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington. He is himself a bona fide liberal, or at least, what passed for a thinking liberal a decade ago. He is a sharp commentator on American politics, and has given us a brilliant and timely essay in the July-August issue of The Atlantic entitled “How American Politics Went Insane”.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Young Americans may not think politics has become insane, because they have never known what it used to be like. The leading political science text of fifty years ago (originally published in 1942, 5th edition in 1964) was Harvard Prof. V.O. Key Jr.’s authoritative Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups.

Note that it appeared before the Vietnam War, the civil rights era, LBJ’s Great Society, the Carter inflation surge, the rise of Reagan, Clinton, Obama, Trump, the end of the Cold War, two Gulf Wars, globalization, the transfer payment dependency explosion, the environmental movement, and the dramatic appearance of new communication technologies. These were game-changing developments.

Somewhere while all this was happening, Rauch argues, Americans began to arrive at some radically different views of the political process. He summarizes them as components of a Chaos Syndrome.

By that he means “a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization … that begins with the weakening of institutions and brokers — political parties, career politicians and congressional leaders and committees — that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time.”

Congress is increasingly unable to actually deal with pressing issues. It hasn’t been able to pass its appropriations bills for twenty years. The central reason, Rauch says, is that the middlemen of American politics have been disfavored and disempowered. They are the many public and private actors within the system “who bring order out of chaos by encouraging coordination, interdependency and mutual accountability.”

These middlemen “recruited and nurtured political talent, vetted candidates for competence and loyalty, gathered and dispensed money, built bases of donors and supporters, forged coalitions, bought off antagonists, mediated disputes, brokered compromises, and greased the skids to turn compromises into law.”

What undid this? Reformers calumniated “professional politicians, closed door negotiations, personal favors, party ties, financial ties, all of it.” The techniques included open primary challenges by non-party hopefuls and movements (think Trump and Sanders), seniority reform in Congress, forcing transparency on delicate negotiations, barring the “pork” spending that often helped to close a deal, and diverting political money away from candidates and parties to issue groups, super PACs, 527s, and the like.

Rauch recognizes that the old system run by sometimes unsavory middlemen had its shortcomings. They were often “undemocratic, high-handed, devious, secretive” (and he might have added, greedy). But they did serve an important purpose, and we may well not be better off for their reduced influence.

Rauch reports a “shocking” study by University of Nebraska political scientists who found that 25 to 40 percent of voters see the give and take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Those largely non-ideological respondents believe that policy should be made not by messy political conflict and negotiations but by “empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers.” These imaginary beings will “step forward, cast aside cowardly politicians and venal special interests, and implement long-overdue solutions.”

These voters primed themselves to follow the three leading “sociopaths” of 2016: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who engineered the costly government shutdown of 2013 to serve his own purposes.

Rauch’s solution is to restore influence to political parties and middlemen. That means putting parties more in charge of their own candidates, favoring contributions to parties and candidates instead of wild card interest groups, and allowing pork to grease Washington deals. Above all, many Americans have to be persuaded to give up their neurotic rejection of the process of politics, and come to the realization that their detested “establishment” may offer a more promising future than the chaos produced by its disappearance.

Vermonters can take some comfort in knowing that here things aren’t so bad, because we have a higher sense of cooperation, and our bipartisan political class has been far more civil and responsible than the national counterpart.

Rauch’s article is at once disturbing, incisive and entertaining. It will well reward the reader concerned about “How American Politics Went Insane.”

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

4 thoughts on “McClaughry: American politics gone insane

  1. sociopathy
    [sō′sē·op′əthē]
    Etymology: L, socius, companion; Gk, pathos, disease
    a personality disorder characterized by a lack of social responsibility and failure to adapt to ethical and social standards of the community.
    Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 9th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.

    I developed my ‘ethical and social standards’ as a teenager over 50 years ago. So I guess my failure to adapt to the present-day version makes me a sociopath. I would proudly stand next to Ted Cruz, one of the few members of Congress who understands ‘social responsibility’.

    (I fear John McC lost it on this one.)

  2. Psalm 14:1-3

     The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
        They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
        there is none who does good.

     The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
        to see if there are any who understand,[a]
        who seek after God.

    They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
        there is none who does good,
        not even one.

  3. A lot of working folks believe in the Rule of Law rather than choosing to be ruled by men. Mankind, particularly any in power, is not trustworthy. The founders of this nation, certainly understood this well and the numerous safeguards, which were put in place to prevent the opposite from happening, worked for 100 + years or so. Both parties were on the same page pretty much regarding this country’s foundation and everyone elected understood our Constitution well, which is not true
    today. My parents, faithful contributors, would not recognize this Democratic Party today. Until Bernie, closet Socialists, interested in ridding the Party of the Bluedogs Dems and the like, called themselves Progressives. It was relatively easy for Congress to negotiate laws, the ifs and the timing of something because they were, up until J F Kennedy on the same page: the rule of law. It is not so easy now….if not impossible….for some members of Congress to compromise the country and it’s founding principles ….if you believe in them …..and especially if you are sure that it is the Constitution, the Rule of Law that is responsible for freedom and The American Dream. Progressives would be happy to rewrite the Ten Commandments, if they believed in God, as well as the Constitution….. on a daily basis, if need be, “to fundamentally change the nation” without even realizing the consequences: that THEN the country is run, not by Rules, but by men, a court of nine. Or maybe dictated to by Obama, the King, who willingly ignored The Law with little or no opposition by the gutless Republicans who said little and did nothing. No one understands this better than the sociopath: Ted Cruz. “Sociopath” because demonization by the Left has been turned into an artform based on the principle that if you say something often enough, Americans (especially ill informed ones) will believe! Especially if they are indoctrinated from a young age that America is in dire need to be “fundamentally changed” and then hard pressed by selective ” history” being taught in institutions of higher learning populated by 95% of instructors who have donated only to the Democratic Socialist Party, who say they are interested in diversity, as long as the diverse (looking) group they admit, all think like them. It’s easy when, as pointed out by the “sociopath” Donald Trump, when Progressives graduates, now calling themselves journalists, dominate the media and selectively report the news or worse, not the news. It’s a cinch when Freedom Of Speech does not apply to hugely wealthy, progressive corporate America such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo and control of free speech is theirs to behold and manipulate generations of kids, never privy to American history or a once required HS Civics class, who know nothing else but social media.
    We are in for a bumpy ride in the rulemaking process. There are still a few “sociopaths” remaining in Congress who know that they are freedom’s last hope and like the Founders are willing to pledge their life, their property and sacred honor for their country. Let’s hope they hold. The working class are smart enough to know there can be no compromising on the choice of freedom or total serfdom.

  4. These imaginary beings will “step forward, cast aside cowardly politicians and venal special interests, and implement long-overdue solutions.” These voters primed themselves to follow the three leading “sociopaths” of 2016: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

    Well, that may be true. I would argue that politics has become so sleazy, so corrupt, so divorced from the rule of law, that such “imaginary” beings must inevitably rise. To label them sociopaths is to ignore the pathology of the current system. The “imaginary beings” are the search of the desperate body politic for an antidote. They picked one. He may or may not work out, but it is hardly accurate to label him a sociopath.

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