If anything is widely agreed on in current U.S. politics, it is that Washington is dysfunctional. But a lack of reflection on what’s been feeding the dysfunction may be giving us the kind of purported solutions that really only exacerbate the problem.
As near as I can tell, as I tried to puzzle it out in the comment thread of David’s recent post, the kind of election-year circus we’re getting seems to have something to do with a cultural climate shaped by some bizarre combination of celebrity and fear. It’s downright sobering at this point to remember that in a democracy, we get what we ask for; elected leaders are in one way or another a reflection of the electorate. None of us is blameless who has had any part in rewarding political candidates for their entertainment value or for playing on our fears of each other (a point I suddenly recall having made before).
Forgetting this, it’s tempting to take out our frustrations on current officeholders, thinking the solution is to clean house and start over. The problem is, the self-styled “outsiders” are even more dysfunctional than the “establishment” they are displacing, as they race to pander to the country’s loudest and most polarized voices. We can already see this in some of our greener congresspersons on both sides of the aisle, and it’s all the more true of the increasing number of candidates with no political experience at all.
But again, in a way, we did ask for this. As a recent commentary on NPR’s Morning Edition reminded me, the absurdly early first stirrings of “this year’s” election season began with a lot of speculation about how boring it was going to be. Even the usually incisive Stephen Colbert did a rather disturbing segment giving more airtime to the same people who by his own admission get too much of it, playing to the perception of those with actual governing experience as bland and soporific, and doing a comedic riff off of Ben Carson when he’d actually been talking about something substantive.
I have to admit, I’d been thinking for the past couple of election cycles that nothing would be more ridiculous than a presidential race between Jeb and Hillary – and then this race, as if to prove me wrong, brought us the likes of Donald and Bernie. Now the further out the “outsider” rhetoric goes, the more compelling the occasional contrarian argument in favor of more experienced political “insiders” sounds. At a certain point, even those tiresome dynasties begin to look almost desirable, or at least relatively sane.
In any case, finding a way back to any relative sanity in our political options will require a broad paradigm shift in our political climate. If I am right that the problem is rooted in fixations with celebrity and fear, the solution will require that we stop responding to candidates based on their entertainment value, as if we were planning to go to the polls to elect not a leader but the next American Idol (although, in a different sense, that may not be too far from the truth); and, especially for people of faith, that the concerns to which we hold our leaders accountable be driven by that faith – reflected in the inseparable love for God and neighbor and, yes, even enemies – rather than by fear.