America’s Political Gridlock: It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature
Moderation and inclusive patriotism could break the impasse, but it won’t happen overnight
Another massacre takes place in America: this one at a school in Texas last week, killing 21 children and 2 adults. The result is a cycle with rituals that have become all too familiar: shock and horror followed by grief and mourning, then calls to action that go nowhere to change laws and policy.
“Do something!” shouted someone in the crowd to President Joe Biden outside of a Catholic church where a memorial service was held Uvalde, the town where the mass shooting happened. Biden responded back: “we will.”
Biden delivered an impassioned prime time speech last night calling for a ban on assault weapons, more background checks, and a repeal on gun manufacturer immunity, among other measures. The reaction? A chorus of conservatives saying Biden will take Americans’ guns away, with some calling for Biden’s impeachment.
It’s very unlikely that this deadlock on guns will break anytime soon. More mass shootings will happen – indeed, they already have at a pace of two a day since the murders at the school in Uvalde.
The lack of major steps on this front is partially the result of America’s system of checks and balances, one in which power is divided among different branches and levels of government. America’s a country founded in opposition to a monarchy and aimed at safeguarding individual freedoms, so the pace of change can often be slow. Add the supermajority requirement that’s emerged over the past fifteen years, and you get a political system built for paralysis – even when policy proposals have wide public support.
A second factor: very organized and well-funded lobbies opposing changes to the status quo, no matter how deadly and unsafe for public health. As a result, individuals are increasingly taking steps to use existing legal frameworks to hold people and gun manufacturers accountable.
But a third reason for the likely gridlock ahead was pinpointed by Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report on PBS Newshour earlier this week:
“Even Senator (Christopher) Murphy I think said at one point: I have been Charlie with the football many times on this issue.
So, he is coming into it with a certain degree of skepticism that something is able to get 10 Republican votes. Part of the challenge we have right now is that this debate is, like so many things in our politics, it's all or none.
There are certainly — when you look at the data, the polling data, most Americans are somewhere in the middle and accept all kinds of compromises. But we don't have compromise as an incentive in Washington anymore.
And when I look back to the last time we really got gun legislation done, it wasn't just that you had Republicans supporting something. You also had Democrats voting against it. So, in 1994, you had 46 Republicans voting for the assault weapons ban, and 64 Democrats voting against it, which shows…the importance of diversity of the caucuses, that Democrats had a lot of rural members, Republicans had a lot of suburban members. That's how you get bipartisan compromise, because each one of these groups had members where their constituencies were strong enough to push them to do one thing or the other.
Now the two parties are just homogeneous. One side is almost entirely rural and small town. The other party, Democrats, of course, are more suburban and urban. And so, on this issue, there is no one within those parties that can bring sort of a compromise possibility to the table.”
The key point: we don’t have incentives to compromise in Washington anymore.
Both political parties face an internal pressure cooker driven by the loudest and often most extreme voices who use campaign funding, social media, and other organizing tools to squelch moderation within their ranks and cut off possibilities for building wider coalitions and opportunities to compromise with the other party.
This hyper-partisanship has become a chronic condition, and there seems to be no immediate remedy to it. Prognostications that Republicans might take control of either one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections later this year will not change this chronic condition because the GOP doesn’t seem to be on a path to broaden and deepen its coalition in ways that will set a new, inclusive pathway for getting big things done, whether on guns or other major issues.
Moderation, A New Public Philosophy and a Renewed National Narrative
Like all chronic conditions, there’s no prescription that will lead to a cure any time soon. We’ve learned to live with this chronic condition to a certain extent, but people of good will who care about the long-term health of America’s political system need to continue looking remedies.
Three core elements that we here at the Liberal Patriot have been exploring and developing in an effort to help expand the thinking about the country’s current predicament are:
1. Moderation in tone and style
The shrill tone of our national discourse accelerates the political fragmentation and leads more and more people to tune out and disengage from public debate. One of the foundational concepts of the Liberal Patriot is to propagate a new style and tone that is countercultural these days in America.
Moderation certainly doesn’t fuel America’s politics today. The most extreme views in America’s society have a symbiotic relationship with each other, and the current media and political culture has an incentive highlight those extremes. But the rising costs of illiberalism may lead to a revival of moderation at some point in the next few years.
2. A new public philosophy
A second element involves the crafting of a new idea of a liberal, inclusive nationalism with the building blocks of practical, problem-solving policy ideas and a set of ideas and values that help shape government action and justify policies.
This new public philosophy aims to offer a clear alternative to the current dominant mode in American politics, which John Halpin recently described as “apocalyptic and sectarian: you’re either with us and all our prejudices or you’re a racist and/or a fascist traitor depending on the point of view.”
The Liberal Patriot’s alternative intends to:
“…provide an alternative to existing ideologies and programs on offer from both right and left: the dead-end gridlock produced by right-wing populism, democratic socialism, and multicultural identity politics, as well as the growing authoritarian waves sweeping the globe.”
3. A new national narrative
A moderate tone and a new set of ideas are not enough. Most people are too busy with their daily lives to worry about these concepts, so new stories need to be crafted that connect with regular people.
A positive, patriotic story can help organize large groups of people to tackle big challenges. We all need stories to imbue our lives with a sense of meaning and purpose. Effective stories can connect us together, and if those narratives are built on the right set of ideas and style of engaging others, it could be transformative.
Working on these three elements won’t change things overnight. In a cultural of instant gratification seeking immediate outcomes, that’s dissatisfying.
But instead of raging against a machine that doesn’t work anymore and grinding up the gears even further, a better alternative might be to toil away quietly trying to craft a new machine.