America used to be proud of its “melting pot” moniker and its reputation for being a country where every person could be successful “if they worked for it.” How true is that today? Most of the time or some of the time? How does a nation determine the well-being of its people, and to what extent does the current American political system impact one’s chances for personal success?
Ours is a nation that has achieved great things: financial strength; military dominance; and a well-deserved reputation as a beacon of freedom and opportunity. Yet, many in the world are viewing America less flatteringly as the last decade of political intransigence has revealed a “harshly different” America under the glare of unceasing twenty-four-hour news coverage. Indeed, America is not alone in the threats to national political structure, but it is the country which has offered enduring stability of its government and political system in contemporary times. Leaders throughout the world are concerned that America is no longer the generous, strong and trustworthy country they knew, but is descending into a role they no longer understand nor trust. History teaches that over time, countries rise and they fall and they either adjust or they succumb. America’s place in the world order has been one of continual ascendancy, stability and leadership. That role may be changing not because we are no longer a great country, but because our political system is experiencing great difficulty sustaining democratic institutions and norms necessary to weather change.
The political environment in America has evolved through many major periods – the industrial age, great wars, and the information age. Social and cultural evolution have been slower adjustments. The election of America’s first black president in 2008 heralded the ability of our country to put racial differences aside until inauguration night and the ensuing eight years proved otherwise. The battle was joined between the two principal political parties and the divide has grown wider each succeeding year, especially for women and African Americans. We are now at a point in America where every facet of our lives is impacted by our political dysfunction. The rancor that exists has so polarized the political process that government has ceased to function effectively, impacting pivotal responsibilities including safety, freedom, mobility, equality, the environment, education, health, and economic stability. Tolerance for diversity has eroded markedly.
America spends more of its budget on defense than the combined major powers of the world, yet we experience more deaths and injuries to gun violence than we do in war. Many of our cities are not safe and those engaged in law enforcement too often fail communities they are supposed to protect. Our constitution heralds equality as a basic right yet we do not pay our genders equal pay for equal work. We tout our educational system as one of the best in the world, yet our student achievement is not commensurate with other developed nations, and access to a quality public education is largely dependent upon factors most children can’t control. Our institutions of higher learning are increasingly cost-prohibitive and gender-exclusive, which form barriers to job entry or financial burdens carried for years. Bloomberg editor Elise Gould notes, “You can’t educate yourself out of gender or racial wage gaps”. Economic barriers are increasingly difficult to overcome as America’s wealth divide grows. Freedom is more dependent upon one’s class, race and gender than an inalienable right. Access to affordable healthcare is increasingly tied to one’s job and quality of life is in challenged. Our elderly and disabled worry that services they counted upon for retirement are a lower priority than protecting income retention.
Where does this picture of doom and gloom lead? A society with a healthy, functioning political system is able to take the aforementioned problems and manage them effectively to achieve balance in process and substance. That is not America’s political system today, nor does it reflect the challenges that exist within a nation that has become increasingly diverse in ethnicity, values, and expectations. Instead, politics has descended into power-dominated decision-making with very little bi-partisan cooperation. Has the time come to “break” the existing political system, re-order priorities, and find a new system that can salvage the strengths of America while respecting its strong differences? How might that occur? Who would lead this effort? Some feel that things are so dysfunctional that we need to re-think our entire national governing model.
The Brookings Institute is proposing a concept called, “Constitutional Localism,” in which the greatest number of public decisions are pushed down to the local level respecting our Constitutional framework. They suggest this could result in “more Democracy” not less, as it would permit “this range of opinion and action to flourish while restoring a shared faith in the common democratic values and processes that define American self-government.” Constitutional Localism would be a radical change in how American society and governance is organized as it would feature local government as a chief determinant of one’s daily life, as opposed to centralized, standardized solutions. Surveys indicate that local government is preferred by more people who have greater trust in local decision-making and feel it is more relevant to people’s lives and livelihoods. It would of necessity, require bi-partisanship to institute and to succeed.
The danger America faces with the increased polarization of our political system is greater volatility in governance accompanied by rising autocracy and further erosion of basic freedoms and democratic norms and institutions. Chris Ladd has written about the challenges America faces in managing the big tent we call our country with only two major parties through centralized government. The Brookings Constitutional Localism concept reaches back to a time when local governance was effective and suggests building upon that model as a way to stabilize our country’s political, social, and economic future. Is it possible that out of all this chaos America has a simpler way forward that would both free and harness our rich diversity into a better system of government? If this new concept could make our nation a better place in which to live and work, would those in power be willing to try the experiment even if it requires them to share power? Have so many changes occurred that we have reached the nadir in our ability to avert autocracy? Brookings is suggesting America use this as an opportunity to make a significant change in how government functions by returning decision-making to the local level. Americans who watch the daily spectacle of government-run amuck at the federal level may find this an attractive idea. In the hands of smart, fair, and pragmatic leaders, responsible change has historically occurred in response to changing times. Brookings could have the concept right but the greatest challenge will be leadership.