This is my last blog as “Watching in Washington”. This is so for two reasons: I’m moving on (I want to tackle a longer-term writing project), and my family is moving from Washington D.C. back to Asia. Thank you very much to those readers who have journeyed with me and encouraged me along the way.
It seems fitting to use the last blog in this format to share some concerns and impressions regarding the United States.
The United States is in transition, I feel. Either its fractious, hyperbolic partisan politics will revert to the more moderate, centrist, longer-term and broader-focused approaches of the past, or the ideological, “party above country” pettiness of the present will degenerate even further. Idealistic me hopes that the former tendencies re-emerge; realistic me, sadly, sees the latter inclinations in fact becoming yet worse before they change for the better.
This is disturbing, to say the least. The United States is presently damaging itself more than any external state or non-state actors are hurting it. The inability to agree on how to address America’s long-term, structural challenges—never mind short-term issues—is crippling. Particularly since there is broad agreement, for example, that tax and entitlement reforms are needed to strengthen the U.S. economy. Of course, the tricky part will be negotiating the details, but there is widespread consensus on many aspects of the needed reforms to the tax code and entitlements. The problem is the inability to structure a political deal due to the ideological extremes in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Extreme ideological spin on all attempts to address such core problems keeps destroying sincere reform efforts.
How will these dynamics change? Americans could use the ballot box to reject emphatically those office holders who don’t perform in the national interest. But they haven’t shown the inclination to execute a full-blooded housecleaning or “swing” election. Why don’t they?
Typically blamed are gerrymandered electoral districts weighted to a particular party. Gerrymandering reinforces “group think”. Coupled with this is the unfortunate tendency of Americans apparently choosing more and more to live with those who are likeminded, thereby creating alarmingly homogenous residential areas. The “echo chamber” effect of listening or watching media that reflects already established views feeds into this narrative too. These trends are also accompanied by increasing apathy and unwillingness to actually vote.
Different remedies are being proposed and variously implemented by states. California has enacted the boldest plan to redraw electoral districts. It created a nonpartisan, independent redistricting board of citizens who were not allowed to be associated with, or related to, elected officials. The number of electoral districts has not changed through this effort, but their boundaries have changed dramatically. In the 2012 election, 26 percent of the seats in the state’s congressional delegation changed hands due to increased competition in redrawn districts. Other states that have adopted redistricting reforms include Arizona, Idaho, Iowa and Washington.
Another technique that moderates outcomes is allowing open primary elections in which voters belonging to any party can participate. In Mississippi, for example, black Democratic voters supported moderate U.S. Senator Thad Cochran in the Republican Party’s primary runoff in which he defeated Tea Party challenger state Senator Chris McDaniel. The director of the group that funded the outreach to Democratic voters defended their actions, saying that they weren’t “looking for Democrats to vote for Cochran, but … Cochran supporters who didn’t vote”.
Adoption of redistricting and open primaries would help change the dynamic, so one should feel encouraged by their adoption in various states. Interestingly, the Republican Party is resisting both redistricting and open primaries—because it finds electoral success in the narrow, homogenized worlds of gerrymandered districts and closed primaries. The Republican Party’s resistance to broadening participation by redrawing electoral districts and opening up primary elections underscores its challenges in moving beyond its narrowing base of older, whiter and wealthier American voters.
This dilemma also highlights the Republican Party’s difficulties with immigration reform. Like tax and entitlement reform, immigration reform is another critical area chronically overdue for action and solutions from U.S. political leaders. But it is a wedge issue like no other for the Republican Party. Different wings of the Party have dramatically divergent views on how to address the issue. Yet it is essential for the U.S. economy and society at large that the laws governing immigration be updated and modernized to reflect the changing realities of the U.S. economy and present immigration trends into the United States. Not addressing current immigration bottlenecks—underscored by the drama presently playing out on the U.S.’s southern border with the influx of children from three Central American countries—limits economic growth. But the adoption of immigration reform would likely weaken the Republican Party since many beneficiaries would be Hispanic-speakers who lean Democratic. The Republican Party is, of course, reluctant to cede any perceived advantage to the Democratic Party.
So I have come full circle. My first blog some 32 months ago was about the need for immigration reform. It is depressing that there has been virtually no progress on the issue in the intervening months; indeed, one could argue there has been regression.
Views of Congress are at an all-time low. Could the upcoming mid-term elections this November see a categorical anti-incumbent swing vote without more electoral reform by states? Maybe. One has to hope. Certainly, if higher numbers of Americans actually participated in the electoral process, outcomes would be different. But one can’t blame people for being turned off by the present tenor and style of debate. Moderation, pragmatism, and common sense must be restored to U.S. politics; the vitriolic ideological hyperbole must go. In their every-day lives, Americans generally appear thoroughly sensible, practical, tolerant, and down-to-earth. America’s political leadership should reflect these dispositions.