In a country where the search for common ground is increasingly elusive, many Americans can agree on this: They believe the political system is broken and that it fails to represent them.
They aren’t wrong.
Faced with big and challenging problems — climate, immigration, inequality, guns, debt and deficits — government and politicians seem incapable of achieving consensus. On each of those issues, the public is split, often bitterly. But on each, there are also areas of agreement. What’s broken is the will of those in power to see past the divisions enough to reach compromise.
The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol is both an extreme emblem of what happens when democracy stops functioning as it should and the result of relentless attacks by former president Donald Trump on the legitimacy of the election process based on lies and distortions, a continuing threat to U.S. democracy.
In more routine ways, the political system feeds frustration and discontent with its incapacity to respond to the public’s needs. There is little on the horizon to suggest solutions.
The failure has multiple origins, including a collapse of trust in institutions. But one of the most significant is a collision between forces both old and new.
The old dates to the writing of the Constitution — debates and compromises that resulted in representation in the House based on population and in the Senate based on equal standing for the states; the odd system by which we elect presidents; and lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices. In general, the founders often distrusted the masses and sought to create structural protections against them.
The newer element, which has gathered strength in recent decades, is the deepening polarization of the political system. Various factors have caused this: shifts within the two parties that have enlarged the ideological gap between them; geographic sorting that has widened the differences between red and blue states; a growing urban-rural divide; and greater hostility among individuals toward political opponents.
The result is that today, a minority of the population can exercise outsize influence on policies and leadership, leading many Americans increasingly to feel that the government is a captive of minority rule.
Twice in the past two decades, the president was elected while losing the popular vote — George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016. That had happened only three times in the previous 200-plus years. The dynamic extends beyond the presidency to the other two branches of government.
A new Washington Post analysis found that four of the nine current justices on the Supreme Court were confirmed by senators who represent a minority of the U.S. population. Since 1998, Republicans have had a majority in the Senate a total of 12 years but did not during that time represent more than half the nation’s population, The Post’s analysis of population data and Senate composition shows. [Continue reading…]