Political dysfunction may be the most important and pressing issue facing America today. Virtually all major issues are impacted by politics.
In 430 B.C., Pericles said, “Just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
Today’s political environment is more paralyzed and dysfunctional than at any point in my lifetime. Americans’ current confidence in Congress is not only the lowest on record, but also the lowest Gallup has recorded for any institution in the forty-one-year history of the poll.
Special interests have a stranglehold on politicians in both parties. The halls of Congress are littered with ideologues, egotists, opportunists, and those who are simply unqualified to act upon the tasks at hand.
America is adrift—like a ship without an anchor. We lack clear and comprehensive policies concerning issues like immigration reform, gun ownership, the proper role of law enforcement, and America’s foreign policy direction.
We need our elected representatives to engage in a search for the “best” solutions. Instead, our elected representatives have been unable to offer any comprehensive solutions, let alone the “ best” solutions.
Society has become increasingly polarized. Highly partisan constituencies monopolize and polarize the public debate, while the “silent majority” of Americans are too preoccupied with the challenges of daily life and too disillusioned by the political dysfunction they see to even participate in the debate, let alone forcefully advocate their more rational centrist views.
Media, which attempts to secure a defined and captive market share by appealing to politically segmented audiences, reinforces ideological and political divides. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, over the last ten years, virtually every news organization or program has seen its credibility marks decline.
Today, only two news organizations—Fox News and local TV news— receive positive believability ratings from at least two-thirds of Republicans. A decade ago, only two news organizations did not get positive ratings from at least two-thirds of Republicans.
By contrast, Democrats generally rate the believability of news organizations positively—with the exception of Fox News. Why do Democrats generally rate the believability of news organizations positively? Because the media has done a good job of targeting and appealing to Democrats.
Why? Because Millennials, who are mostly Democrats, represent the largest and most significant emerging demographic market—larger than the Baby Boomers. Advertisers want to reach Millennials. Consequently, some media programing specifically targets Millennials by appealing to their liberal biases. Just as Fox News targets conservatives by appealing to their conservative biases.
This is why media credibility ratings continue to plummet. The real question is should any of us, including Millennials, trust media organizations, liberal or conservative, that intentionally target, reinforce and appeal to our biases? Is that what we really want and need from our news organizations?
Gerrymandering of congressional districts (the act of manipulating district boundaries to create partisan-advantaged districts) has caused elected representatives on both sides of the aisle to focus on pandering to their partisan constituencies in order to secure their own reelection. Running in highly partisan districts designed to ensure their reelection, members of Congress have little if any incentive to reach across the aisle to find better, more comprehensive solutions. To do so, they fear, might actually work against their own reelection.
The influence of money and special interests over both individual candidates and party leadership causes many elected representatives to disregard the needs of the country and focus instead on their reelection and/or advancing the interests of their party.
The world is becoming more dangerous, and America has become more polarized and paralyzed. We simply don’t have the luxury to continue suffering this incompetence and malfeasance.
Iran, with the support of Russia, and North Korea, with the support of China, have become increasingly antagonistic. Russia, faced with declining oil prices and a deteriorating economy, has become increasingly nationalistic and aggressive. The proliferation and possible use of nuclear weapons and/or highly radioactive material, remain enormous threats with unstable countries like North Korea and Iran becoming increasingly provocative and unpredictable. Vladimir Putin, intent on restoring the grandeur of Imperial Russia has expanded its reach in Ukraine and Syria, increasing tensions in the region.
China has built up and reclaimed an archipelago of man-made islands, now spanning 2,900 acres, in the South China Sea. U.S. officials fear the islands, built in international waters, will be used for military purposes and may pose a threat to one of the world’s most important commercial shipping routes. In February of 2016, China stationed anti-aircraft missiles and fighter aircraft on the disputed islands. You will hear much more about this issue in the future.
Both Russia and China engage in daily cyber attacks against American interests; Islamic extremists are using encryption technology (which was originally designed to protect America’s data and communications from being compromised) to inspire lone-wolf attacks against America and its allies.
Perhaps most disturbingly, at the same time that Islamic extremists are actively attempting to solicit recruits for a global jihad, domestic divisions over religious, ethnic, and racial lines have caused America to become more divided than at any time since the Civil Rights movement—creating a potentially rich recruiting ground within our borders for jihadists.
Syria’s civil war has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of WWII, causing displaced Syrian refugees to seek asylum in Europe and America, with the threat of Islamic terrorists infiltrating their ranks.
In February of 2016, James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that we now face, “the most diverse array of challenges and threats that I can ever recall.”
In sum, our threats have multiplied while political competency and accountability in this country have diminished. Call me alarmist, but to me, the convergence of increased danger and diminished competency creates legitimate cause for concern.
America’s foreign and domestic policies need to be reexamined. Many of our current approaches to major foreign policy and domestic issues are simply not working. America will confront risks regardless of what policy is adopted. No direction eliminates risk. The correct policy is one that will minimize those risks. Republicans advocate peace through strength. Democrats advocate peace through restraint. Both approaches are incomplete solutions and neither approach has thus far proven effective.
Neither carpet-bombing nor isolationism will solve the problem of radical Islamic terrorism. This problem is multidimensional and nuanced. It is also becoming increasingly urgent. No one has offered a thoughtful and comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem and the current approach is clearly not working.
The threat of radical Islamic terrorism cannot be assessed and addressed simply by reference to its current form, scope, or breadth. This is a profoundly dangerous and rapidly growing movement that, if allowed to do so, will only become larger and more threatening over time. It must be defeated before it gains further strength and momentum.
Finding the correct approach to all of the issues that we face as a nation will require that we rethink our overall strategy. It will require major structural changes in how we govern ourselves. Implementing and executing on any approach will present even greater challenges.
As a country, we need to come together and try to reach consensus on what policies will most effectively reduce America’s long-term risks and increase our long-term security. We then need to execute on that plan.
We need to do this not as a divided and fearful country, unsure of our direction and purpose, but as a united and courageous country, firm in our commitment to one another and resolute in our determination to protect our families and our homeland.
We are not doing this today. We are not united. Instead, we are deeply divided. Why? Ideology, partisanship, ego, money, and fear.
The tragedy is that solving imminent problems and devising effective strategies should not be about Republicans or Democrats. Finding the right solutions, to protect our national security, should not be about ideology, partisanship, ego, or money, and we cannot afford to be paralyzed by fear.
All elected federal representatives, regardless of party, regardless of what state or congressional district they may be from, have a fiduciary duty to all Americans—to do what is right for all Americans. In no area is this more important than in the areas of national defense and national security.
Winston Churchill once said, “Sometimes it is not enough that we do our best, sometimes we must do that which is required.” What is required here is that we focus on our shared interests and put our individual and party interests aside. National defense and national security are too important to be driven by simplistic ideologies.
The stakes are far too high for politicians and the media to be manipulating public opinion over critical issues, simply to draw contrasts between political parties during a presidential campaign.
The country doesn’t need more contrast. It needs more cooperation. Americans will recognize and follow the right plan. They simply need to be presented with the right plan.
Our elected representatives should be working together to develop, build consensus around and execute on that plan. The media should be assisting in that effort by focusing on areas of agreement rather than exacerbating conflict.
Instead, politicians are focused on retaining or regaining their political power during a presidential election, while media organizations are focused on increasing ratings and market share by fanning the flames of conflict and appealing to their ideologically segmented audiences.
It is important that we elect the right person as president in 2016, but it is equally important that we move forward after the election, united in purpose and supportive of the “ best” plan possible.
Some may regard what we are seeing today as “business as usual.” That may be true, but these are far from usual times. It is not enough to rely on the fact that America is “the most powerful nation in the world”. That meant something when Teddy Roosevelt was president, but it means far less today.
For better or worse, we have entered an era of profound change; an era in which wars can be waged on a laptop and the power of great military forces can easily be circumvented; an era in which those who wish to harm America are successfully using social media to recruit and inspire Americans, yes Americans, to commit lone-wolf attacks and other acts of treason; an era in which encrypted communications make detecting and preventing attacks by such actors more difficult and at times impossible; an era in which “business as usual” has become increasingly dangerous.
We can no longer afford to accept “business as usual” from our elected representatives. Extreme polarization and intense political dysfunction cannot be allowed to become “the new normal.” The need to reform and repair our government, the need for campaign finance reform, the need for “citizen statesmen” and “principled nonconformists,” and the need for unity and cooperation will only become more urgent over time.
How might you be able to help? Begin by understanding that things can and should be better. Expect and demand more from your elected officials and the media.
Understand the issues and demand the fundamental and structural changes that this nation so desperately requires. Demand an end to the corrupting influence of money in politics. Demand an end to gerrymandering.
Question your assumptions. Be alert and informed.
Consider all viewpoints from a diverse mix of media outlets, especially those that help you question your assumptions, before arriving at conclusions. You don’t have all the answers. None of us do. Recognize that.
Be open and flexible. Be willing to compromise. Be thoughtful and courageous.
Listen and learn. Get involved. Vote. Organize. Lead.