Is this ‘syndrome’ causing American political dysfunction?

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A woman holds up a t-shirt before Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump held a campaign event at the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 16, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSO2SR

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Almost everyone agrees American politics has become more chaotic in recent years, that it’s changed, and not always for the better.

Scholar Jonathan Rauch has a theory about why, and he shares it in a recent article for “The Atlantic” magazine.

JONATHAN RAUCH, The Atlantic: The article is about what I call “chaos syndrome.”

And that is the steady decline in the ability of the political systems to organize itself whether in campaigns, or in government. People think that politics just somehow magically organizes itself. It doesn’t work that way. You need to assemble these huge coalitions of 535 politicians on Capitol Hill, and tens of thousands of interest groups, and tens of millions of voters, and assemble all those in government to get stuff done.

That requires a lot of middlemen and a lot of people in between doing a lot of bargaining and negotiation. You cut those people out, you get chaos.

What we have done over the last 40 or 50 years is systematically attacked and weakened the parties, the political machines, the professionals, and insiders, and hacks, and all the tools that they use to get politicians to play well together. And with those gone, you get chaos.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was it that worked about what you see as the kind of ideal or close-to-ideal political system in this country?

JONATHAN RAUCH: Starting in, really, the very beginning of the republic, we began building parties with political machines and hierarchies and things like seniority systems on Capitol Hill.

So, there were people to call when you had to get stuff done. And if Judy needed Jonathan to vote on a bill in Congress to keep the government open or raise the debt limit or do something for the team, Judy could call me up and say, you know, if you do that, you’re going to get money for your campaign, you’re going to have an easy reelection campaign, you’re going to get that extra runway for the airport in your district, we’re going to be able to make this deal behind closed doors.

You could do all that stuff. Virtually all of that stuff now is difficult or impossible. And all you can do is beg me, and I say, why should I do any of that? It’s just going to get me in trouble in my district.

Here we are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why were those transactional relationships important to make government work, to make politics work in this country?

JONATHAN RAUCH: The transactions allow for compromise. And compromise is what it’s got to be all about when you’re governing, because no one is ever going to have a big enough majority to just do what they want to do all the time.

Well, to get people to compromise, you have to give them stuff. A famous example of this, but far from the only one, is the 1964 civil rights bill, only passed because Lyndon Johnson bought support from Republicans. He went to them and said, what do you need to put this bill through?

And the Republican leader in the House, a man by the name of Charlie Halleck, said, well, how about a big fat research grant for my district in Indiana? LBJ said done. Halleck said done. That bill went through.

REP. CHARLIE HALLECK (R-Ind) : God damn it, did I help you on civil rights?

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, Former President of the United States: Yes, you sure did. And you helped yourself, because you all want civil rights as much as we do. I believe it’s a nonpartisan bill. I don’t think it’s a Johnson bill.

REP. CHARLIE HALLECK: Oh, no, no, no. You’re going to get all the political advantage.

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: No, no, no, no.

REP. CHARLIE HALLECK: We aren’t going to get a God-damned thing.

JONATHAN RAUCH: Is that dishonorable? No, it’s politics. Is it pretty? No, it’s politics.

But that’s the kind of lubricant that you need to give people incentives to work together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And all of this entails a measure of secrecy behind closed doors, smoke-filled rooms.

JONATHAN RAUCH: Smoke-filled rooms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have come to believe in this country, by 2016, that transparency is good, that we need to know everything, open books, open doors.

JONATHAN RAUCH: Yes, put them in the fishbowl.

And, of course, the problem with that is, if every negotiation is conducted in public, then the minute one person says, well, what if we try this, next thing you know, the interest groups have piled all in, and the political opponents have shot it to pieces.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fast-forward. president Obama is in office, and he’s trying to get his health care reform legislation proposal through.

JONATHAN RAUCH: Obama, of course, campaigns on sunshine. We’re going to have the whole process be open to the public. He gets into office and discovers it is not possible to write a very complicated piece of legislation involving hundreds, if not thousands of interest groups, and multiple working parts.

You can’t negotiate that in public. You will be shot to pieces on day one. So what does he do? He goes behind closed doors, not because he wants to, but because he has to.

If you open the doors, the negotiations often die before they even start.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying he — you know, for him, it never would have gotten — it barely passed, but it…

(CROSSTALK)

JONATHAN RAUCH: It wouldn’t have gotten done.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are done.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama’s crowning legislative achievement came early in his first term, in 2010. Soon after, Democrats lost their majority in the House. Then, in 2011, the president attempted to negotiate the so-called grand bargain budget bill with Republican House Speaker John Boehner. This time, the results were different.

JONATHAN RAUCH: We were really this close to a very good budget deal in which both parties, and conservatives, and liberals, were all going to give something, and we would have substantially reduced long-term deficits, reduced entitlement spending, raised taxes some, the kind of package that ultimately pretty much everyone agrees we’re going to have to do in order to solve our long-term fiscal problems.

The speaker of the House, John Boehner, wanted to do it, but he could not get his own caucus organized enough to back him up on it. And that’s when I realized that the groups of obstructionists were now able to basically hold the system to ransom.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in 2013, GOP leaders could not prevent their renegade members from shutting down the federal government.

JONATHAN RAUCH: No one wants it to shut down, including a lot of the people who voted to shut it down. They were kind of hoping that wouldn’t happen. Ted Cruz wanted to shut it down because it was good for his presidential campaign.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-Texas) : Do you like green eggs and ham?

JONATHAN RAUCH: So, John Boehner, appearing on the Leno show, and Leno says, why did the government shut down? And Boehner says something that’s stuck in my mind ever since:

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: A leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.

JONATHAN RAUCH: This is the speaker of the House who no longer has enough incentives, enough tools, enough organizational power to get people to follow.

We don’t have a crisis of leadership in Washington, Judy. We have a crisis of followership.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When did things start to go wrong, in your view? I mean, when did the system that was working so great, with the patronage, with pork, when did it start to change?

JONATHAN RAUCH: Well, caveat, I don’t want anyone to think it’s just all the golden age and everything was perfect. There were big problems with every system, and there always have been.

It’s a question of overcorrecting. The needle went too far one way, so we overcorrected and went way too far in the other, threw the baby out with the bathwater.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some of this must have been in reaction to Watergate, to Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, the idea the government lied to the American people, so the desire was to fix that.

JONATHAN RAUCH: That and the idealism of a generation which was, in many ways, to its credit, very idealistic, and said, well, surely we can do it better than that.

They start passing a whole series of reforms. So, we moved to direct primary elections. We started reducing the role of appropriations committees. We started tearing down the seniority system on Capitol Hill. All of that begins in the ’70s. It accelerates and continues in the ’90s, and it’s going on to this day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Moving toward, I guess, what some people would describe as small-D democratic politics, where more and more people are involved?

JONATHAN RAUCH: Well, that was the ideal, but it didn’t work out that way, of course.

As you know, the number of people who actually vote in primaries is very small. Donald Trump basically clinched the nomination with the support of about 12 percent of Republican voters. That’s about it, because it turns out that, when you remove these intermediaries, these political professionals from the system, who you really empower are the small minorities of activists who are best organized, and either most passionate, or have the narrowest parochial interests, but you kind of turn it over to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And has that happened in both parties?

JONATHAN RAUCH: Yes. Both parties are structurally weak.

Look, Judy, this is the first time in my life — and I’m 56 years old — where, of the four final finishers — set aside John Kasich — three of them were renegades who had run as outsiders and against their own party structures, Bernie Sanders, not even a Democrat, Donald Trump, in no meaningful sense a Republican. Ted Cruz shut down the government, hurt his own party, campaigned against his own leadership.

Parties and political systems used to be about excluding renegades who would never play well with others in government. Now it’s actually systematically screening them in. That’s new. I think it’s very important for my friends who are Democrats who are kind of thinking, well, Hillary Clinton will win, and then the Republicans will get their act together, problem solved.

I say, no, Donald Trump didn’t cause chaos. Chaos caused Trump. There will be more coming afterwards if we don’t re-empower politicians to get organized and work together.

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