That’s the word we hear constantly to describe the state of our politics and the society within which it functions. Somehow this characterization has managed to achieve consensus status, even as the mass media that tell us so have become more fragmented.
Yet while political conflict is certainly a constant, is its magnitude overstated? After all, rarely in our personal relationships do such disagreements descend into lasting recriminations or permanent dissociations.
Could it be that the problems exhibited within our federal government are actually due to a breakdown in the system itself, and therefore not accurately reflective of the society it is intended to govern?
This is the intriguing argument offered by Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and contributing editor at The National Journal and The Atlantic, in his essay “How American Politics Went Insane” published in the July/August edition of The Atlantic.
Rauch provocatively argues that is isn’t the establishment that has abandoned the country—a popular contention made both on the left and right today—but the other way around.
In demonizing political professionals and parties to extent we have, our unique system of government now suffers from what he terms “chaos syndrome,” which he describes as “a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization.”
He points out that the framers of our founding document were preoccupied with the need to “restrain ambition and excess by forcing competing powers and factions to bargain and compromise” and avoid “demagogic excess and populist caprice.”
Consequently, the Constitution divided power and authority among three distinct branches of government and sharply limited the impact of direct elections.
However, it did not prescribe a system for internal organizational discipline — resembling that rooted, for example, in a parliamentary system of government — so it might respond effectively to the demands and challenges with which it would be continuously confronted.
That task was left to the governmental branches and their actors themselves.
Therefore, out of practical necessity, various practices and structures evolved over many decades to achieve that organizational discipline necessary to make the system work.
Despite George Washington’s warnings about political parties in his Farewell Address, they formed anyway as a means of establishing cooperative relationships and enforcing accountability between otherwise individualistic politicians.
With time, further reward and incentive understandings were formed through the use of patronage and earmarks, or so-called “pork barrel” spending.
Committees and a seniority system were developed within Congress itself to organize the workload, share out power and authority, and encourage long-term loyalty and reliability among members.
Alongside came the middlemen — professionals more or less permanently a part of the system — serving as intermediaries and power brokers between and among individual legislators, the parties and the executive and legislative branches.
Though far from perfect and not without their own problematical excesses, these formal and informal arrangements were instrumental in facilitating the negotiations and compromise crucial to responsive governing within the American constitutional system.
Nonetheless, it was those excesses — the party-dominated nominating processes, “soft” money, sclerotic congressional seniority systems, closed-door negotiations, pork-barrel spending — that came to be seen as unsavory ways of conducting political business and became the legitimate target of reformers.
However, in a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences, Rauch explains how well-meaning and clearly justifiable reforms also had the effect of weakening the organically derived structures that fostered conciliation and institutional accountability.
The result is that the government, rather than being composed of actors needing the cooperation of each other to be successful in their pursuits, is now composed of individual actors who no longer need the party or each other to stay in office.
Consequently, the government is no longer able to get its work done.
He further laments “the general public’s reflexive, unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics.”
It would seem no mere coincidence that this dismissive, ultimately self-defeating attitude has been a central tenet of Republican Party ideology since Ronald Reagan’s declaration that “government isn’t the answer to our problems; government is the problem.”
Cause and effect start to look indistinguishable when problems start feeding on themselves and each other.
Chaos syndrome, institutional dysfunction and public hostility constitute a dynamically destructive feedback loop. It’s no wonder if, by emphasizing political polarization, we are keying on the wrong source for our problems.
If we’re ever going to break the cycle, we first have to understand the path that has brought us here.
Rauch certainly gives us something fresh and different to think about.
John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.