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Bullhorn: Our System’s as Broken as It Ever Was, and That’s on Purpose

Friday, September 10, 2010

To help us launch It’s A Free Country, we reached out to politicians, academics, cultural thinkers, and activists to help us define our mission. The question we asked is simple: “What’s Broken in Politics, and How Do We Fix It?” This is Jami Floyd's answer.

There is nothing I dread so much as the division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures in opposition to each other. -John Adams 

Way back in 1790, just a few short years after the real Tea Party, John Adams was stressing that our political system was broken. But it wasn't broken then, and it isn’t now. Here's why: the political parties don’t govern in our political process; the Constitution does.

Despite all the chatter about our broken political system, then and now, Adams’ fears have not come to pass. Instead, the cool calculations of the Father of our Constitution, James Madison, prevail. 

But John Adams’ concerns then should give us great comfort now. The constancy of the complaint only confirms that the system works. Our democracy has stood the test of time, precisely because of the imperfections Adams decried -- imperfections Madison deliberately built into the system at its inception.  

The Constitution is an invitation to struggle and the midterm elections are the best example of this. Madison was, after all, not just the Fourth President of the United States and the author of the most famous of the Federalist Papers. He was also an accomplished legislator -- they called him Little Jemmy on the Hill -- and he learned first hand that absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

Fast forward to Madison's constitutional system with its three branches of government and a legislative process in which the minority absolutely needs the majority. Just ask Newt Gingrich in 1994 or Nancy Pelosi in 2006. These are palpable examples of Madison’s prescience at work in an off-year cycle.  

Our system was specifically designed to ensure that our President and leaders in Congress would constantly confront each other, even as they work to answer the question presented here: “What’s Broken in Politics and How Can We Fix It?”  

Think about it: At any given time neither the President, nor Congress governs; neither branch alone is "in charge." Similarly, neither Democrats nor Republicans are in full control. At all times, both parties serve as both government and opposition. Thus, bipartisan compromise and partisan confrontation are both necessary legislative strategies.  

We may not like the way it looks or feels. It is never pretty. But this is the way our democracy is supposed to function. And function it does. The Constitution invites constructive, even contentious, partisanship. American politics embody the principle of disharmony. Majorities change, but the democracy survives.

In the fall of 1800, the question of who was to lead the nation – the incumbent John Adams who was seeking a second term or his Vice President Thomas Jefferson -- became a contest of personal vilification. I am no historian, but I would venture to say, it surpassed any presidential election in American history. 

Thomas Jefferson was disparaged as a hopeless visionary, a traitor, more French than American. There were whispers that he “carried on” with slave women. Adams was decried as a monarchist, more British than American, old, addled, corrupt and toothless. There were whispers that he was insane. Whether Adams or Jefferson was the most maligned would be hard to say. It is easy to understand why poor Mr. Adams (who is one of my personal heroes) was so very concerned about partisanship.

Yet, with the passage of time, Adams and Jefferson forgave their political rivalry, rekindled their friendship and together took their rightful places in American history. Their contemporary Mr. Madison perhaps understood the test of time better than did they. It seems the rest of us would do well to simply take the time to vote -- and relax. 

Thus, despite all the political doomsayers on The Right and naysayers on The Left, our political system is running pretty much the way it has for better than 200 years -- not smoothly; but it was never intended to run smoothly, in the first place. 

The system is not broken. It works precisely the way it is supposed to work – with rancor, with struggle, with adversity.   A democracy, after all, is representative of the people.  And people are complicated. As Madison said:

What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. - James Madison

Jami Floyd is a broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio.  She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.

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