There is no doubt that our system of constitutional government is in a period of distress, but there is considerable doubt about the causes.
All attention is now on President Donald Trump - his ignorance of and disrespect for the Constitution and the basics of American civics. But gridlock, broken trust and rancid partisanship, the main symptoms of constitutional dysfunction, predated Trump’s election. Trump may have turned a serious illness into a lethal disease, but he is not the original sinner. Moreover, Trump as president is dangerous precisely because his fellow elected officials - legislators of both parties, the civil service and the civilian “political elite” lack the skill and gumption to cage him.
The problem with American government in this period is above all else a personnel problem. It started with Watergate and has gotten worse and worse over the years. As campaigns, politics and legislating have become less respected and more polluted, fewer and fewer of our best and brightest are willing to enter the arena. And that makes it all worse; it’s a perfect vicious circle. Trump is not the cause, but an extreme effect. That does not relieve him of responsibility or mean that he can’t make matters much worse - he already has.
My view of the root cause of civic rot is a minority one. There is a whole other camp that doesn’t think that there is a problem, believing that gridlock is a good thing and incompetent statecraft is the norm. But among those who think government can and should do better, there are three diagnoses competing with my theory.
First comes the argument that representative democracy depends on robust economic growth to survive. When growth stops, competition for resources becomes too vicious for democracy to handle and the order of things cracks. While it is obvious that the stagnation of incomes for Middle America since the 1980s has created and exacerbated political problems, I don’t see any evidence that perpetual growth is a necessary ingredient of a healthy representative democracy.
A view more common among liberals is that democracy has been hijacked by special interests and the very wealthy and that is the big problem. Pardon my cynicism, but I think history shows that most democracies have been hijacked by special interests and the very wealthy most of the time. This is not new or special. The counter-argument is that, in America, economic inequality has never been so extreme thus political inequity has never been so extreme. That view seems to ignore slavery, among other things.
The last explanatory theory is that the electorate itself has become so polarized and divided that commonsense governance is impossible. The ideological fragmentation of the news media and the echo chambers of social media make it all uglier and louder. Government can’t unite because the electorate is not at all united.
There is much truth in all of these ideas. But none of them are new to our history and none of them, in my view, doom the possibility of more competent government that enjoys great public trust. In the short run, better government is doomed by the people who staff it and run it. Fixing that is primarily a human resources problem.
Think about running for the House and Senate. Would you want to do it? Would you want your kid or your parent to do it? What kind of person can endure living in a perpetual campaign and constantly begging for money from self-interested donors? Who is willing to run nasty television and web ads filled with half-truths and slanders? Who wants to be the butt of such attacks? Congressional and presidential campaigns now last for two years; no other country takes longer than a few months. And if you win, only about 7 percent of voters trust members of Congress. You’ve been elected town pariah.
Think about accepting a government job that requires Senate confirmation? You have to bare your personal and financial details to partisan enemies and be willing to be a political pawn in order to serve for a very short time.
Remarkably, there are still many gifted and patriotic people willing to make these sacrifices. But there are a lot more people who look at these positions as ways to cash in or feed their egos. And there is a marked absence of the best and brightest, people from the heights of universities, businesses, the military, the media, law and science that want to run for office or take top appointments.
Some have suggested that the Trump-phobia will inspire more young and talented people to go into politics and public service. That would be a welcome silver lining.
Perhaps it will take a whole new generation to repair the Constitution’s HR problem.
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC (www.decodedc.com).