Op-Ed by Dan McGinn and Peter Hart
Breaking Government Gridlock: America’s Birthday Challenge
The story of America is the story of hope over despair and unity over division. Countless political, social and economic disruptions have threatened to divide the nation and destroy our remarkable system of government. But Americans have always persevered.
Since the Constitution was adopted in 1787, twelve generations of Americans have stayed true to our founding fathers’ vision to build “a more perfect union.” Now we are faced with new deeply troubling and endlessly complicated challenges. At the heart of our current threat are three key elements.
First, the public has lost faith in the core institutions upon which our government and our economy are based. Institutions we once revered, or at least respected, are no longer seen as serving the public interest. The table below illustrates the loss of trust in government, capitalism and education. The pillars are crumbling.
Second, the shift in the political system away from populism and greater participation, which defined much of the 20th century, toward the commanding influence of Super Pacs, billionaire operatives and ultra-influential special interests, has undermined the essence of our representative democracy. Access to unlimited cash is corroding and corrupting the political process. Our country’s ability to protect the rights of minorities while ensuring the majority wins at the ballot box is severely threatened. The system is broken. The average voter is exponentially less influential, while the super elite, big-money operative is exponentially more influential. The public knows this, which is why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, two individuals who are essentially third-party candidates, have garnered tremendous support in mainstream political primaries.
Until the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC is overturned, our electoral system will remain seriously out of balance, and the direction of the country will be left in the hands of the few, triggering growing anger and frustration among many Americans. The framers of the U.S. Constitution feared the “tyranny of the majority,” but today the majority has been greatly outfoxed by the minority. They know it and aren’t happy about it.
Third, the disappearance of competitive Congressional districts should alarm everyone who believes in the importance of a government that is respected and valued. In the 1980s, approximately 135 congressional districts were considered competitive, such that both parties had a true shot in any given election. In 2016, only 35 districts are considered competitive. The result is an increasingly polarized Congress where members no longer believe they need to listen to the other party, much less compromise. Until we readjust the way congressional districts are drawn, and so rebuild a Congress that is less extreme, compromise and bipartisan legislation will be nearly impossible.
The consequence of these three forces is gridlock, declining trust and a yearning among the general public for something radical to shake up the system. For more than 13 million Democratic voters, the message of change was embodied in a 74-year-old Jewish, socialist, United States Senator from Vermont. For nearly 14 million Republican voters, the choice was easy — a 70-year-old, billionaire, reality TV star who thumbed his nose at every written and unwritten political rule. Putting aside the success of these two unconventional candidates, the larger message is that Americans aren’t just angry about specific issues, they are deeply distrustful of the underlying institutions.
We end where we started. Americans are a people of hope. We want to believe that we can create a world that’s better for our children than the one we inherited. Our faith is being sorely tested. The greatest gift our elected officials could give America over the next decade, as we move toward the nation’s 250th birthday, is a government that goes back to solving problems, with a focus on the common good. Compromise has become the dirtiest of words in Washington. It’s ironic because compromise is at the heart of our democracy. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are products of hard-fought compromises.
In the current U.S. Presidential election, the American people are sending a clear message: If both parties remain fixed on an all-or-nothing approach, “We the People” will see to it that the system is radically changed.
Peter D. Hart is the founder of Hart Research. Dan McGinn is the CEO of McGinn and Company specializing in managing complex reputation issues.