Sun, Nov 09, 2014 - Page 9 News List

US has botched democracy with dysfunctional political system

By Nicholas Kristof  /  NY Times News Service

Let’s face it: The US political system is broken.

The midterm elections were a stinging repudiation of US President Barack Obama, but Republicans should also feel chastened: A poll last year found US Congress less popular than cockroaches.

So congratulations to those members celebrating election victories. However, our democratic institutions are in trouble when they can not outpoll cockroaches, which did not even campaign.

“Politics is the noblest of professions,” then-US president Dwight Eisenhower said in 1954, and politics in the past often seemed a bright path toward improving our country.

Former US president Bill Clinton represented a generation who regarded politics as a tool to craft a better world, and Obama himself mobilized young voters with his gauzy message of hope. He presented himself as the politician who could break Washington’s gridlock and get things done — and we have seen how well that worked.

I am in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. However, they are turning not to politics as their lever, but to social enterprise, nonprofits, advocacy or business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.

A national exit poll conducted by Edison Research found that a majority of voters disapproved of Republicans and Democrats alike, and only 20 percent trust Washington to do what is right most or all the time.

Obama is licking his wounds in the White House, and he does not seem to accept that the election is a judgement on his presidency. I am sorry. When Democrats lose in Colorado and struggle in Virginia, when voters say they are sending a message to the White House, it is time for Obama to shake up his staff, reach out beyond his insular circle of longtime aides and recalibrate.

Critics are right that the president should try harder to schmooze with legislators, although I am skeptical that Republicans are that charmable. After all, some polls have shown more than one-third in the Republican Party said he was born abroad and about one-fifth suspected that he could be the antichrist.

Yet it is not just Obama who is looking ragged today. The entire political system is. Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal have charted the attitudes of the political parties back to 1879 and they found party polarization in recent years to be greater than at any time since their charts began.

That is partly because Democrats have become more liberal, but mostly because Republicans have become more conservative — indeed, more conservative than at any time since 1879.

Politicians have also figured out what works for their own careers: playing to their base, denouncing the other side and blocking rivals from getting credit for anything. Since many politicians are more vulnerable in a primary than in a general election, there is not much incentive for compromise.

After Obama took office, Republicans assiduously tried to block him, even shutting down the federal government. Republican governors prevented their own citizens from getting health insurance through federally financed Medicaid. I see that as obstructionism, but it paid off in these midterms.

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