The Slow Death of American Democracy

How redistricting rules and institutional breakdowns brought us to the shutdown.

The American political system is broken. It is in the throes of progressive deterioration, and nothing is likely to reverse the deterioration anytime soon. It is time for the American people to begin to worry about the future of their republic.

These stark musings are precipitated, of course, by the partial government shutdown that resulted from rabid partisanship and governmental dysfunction. But the shutdown is neither the cause of the deterioration nor a manifestation, in and of itself, of progressive governmental decline. After all, we have had shutdowns in the past and survived them just fine. And our history contains numerous eras when the intensity of politics spawned various kinds of governmental dysfunction.

On two occasions in the dozen years before the Civil War, the House became so divided that it couldn’t elect a speaker. The result was that for weeks the House couldn’t organize; without a functioning House, the Senate couldn’t conduct business; without a functioning Congress, the president couldn’t send up his annual message and set a national agenda. The government froze.

Or consider the rabid Jacksonian era, when two presidents—Andrew Jackson himself and his protégé, James Polk—were censured by houses of Congress.

Those difficulties were spawned in part by powerful political emotions unleashed by issues that lawmakers and their constituents considered fundamental to the very definition of the nation. It is true that we are living in such a time today, and that is contributing mightily to the venomous nature of our politics. But the country’s current political woes stem also from the fact that the machinery of government isn’t working as it should.

Consider the role of current redistricting practices on Congress’ failure to find a path through the issue thicket of our time. In the modern era of the House of Representatives, there are fewer and fewer contested districts every time a new redistricting plan emerges. Instead, districts are drawn to ensure that they will be dominated by one party or the other.

A look at how this developed is instructive. Well-meaning reforms almost always breed unintended consequences. In a landmark 1964 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that population disparities among districts violated its earlier "one man, one vote" principle. Subsequent rulings pressed "zero population deviation" as a fundamental goal in congressional apportionment. Then through the confluence of actions—amendments to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, various court rulings and Justice Department interpretations—a mandate emerged: Whenever feasible, states must create a district in which a minority group enjoys majority status.

But doing this in the context of zero population deviation is tough. The map-drawing computers must cut district lines right through counties, through precincts, through towns and villages. They wind and curve and bend, creating districts that look, as one pol once put it, like a bug splattered on a car windshield.

These districts bear no relationship to the political communities that have grown up organically over the years. Whereas people and politicians in cities and towns and counties around the nation must learn to work together in a climate of mutual respect for each other and for the system in which they operate, their representatives in Washington are now totally unmoored from those efforts and that sensibility. For 150 years, before this gerrymander phenomenon infected our political system, a leading principle was that districts should be compact and "geographically contiguous." The idea was to ensure that districts interlocked with the surrounding political community and that members of Congress reflected the swirl of struggles and debates that defined the community.

That era is dead, replaced by a system that spawns members of Congress who represent not whole communities but pastiches of population enclaves here and there that harbor particularly strong partisan sensibilities. Thus have representatives, of both parties, become more and more driven by ideology. Thus has the House become more and more polarized.

Consider also the complete breakdown in parliamentary discipline in both houses of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner has no tools (or weapons) with which to nudge (or whip) his members into line. He only has cajolery, which doesn’t go very far in a time when ideological intensity defines the nation’s politics. In the old days, congressional leaders had various carrots and sticks with which to impose discipline. And party elders back home held plenty of sway over members as well. Now that system of party and parliamentary discipline is gone, replaced by gangs of political paladins with little fealty to any kind of order.

This also has undermined the social pressure that once served to hold in check mavericks who went too far. When Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey was elected to the Senate in 1948 as a brash young Democrat in a hurry to remake society and the Senate culture, he was shunned by his colleagues and became a sad senator without influence. Lyndon Johnson, a Senate bigwig, took the faltering Humphrey aside and coached him in the ways of the Senate and how to play the game. Humphrey took the lessons to heart and emerged as a powerhouse in the chamber.

It’s difficult to see any such social pressure and mentorship altering the course of Texas’s freshman Republican senator, Ted Cruz, whose political elbows are far sharper and out of control than Humphrey’s ever were. For Cruz, there seems to be almost no regard for the kind of congenial combat that characterized the Senate of old.

And there were reasons for that congeniality that went beyond mere courtesy. There was a widespread view that lawmakers had to worry about what the voters were thinking. When Democrat Lyndon Johnson was Senate minority leader during the early presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower, he ostentatiously embraced a policy of "responsibility." As he told a Democratic Party dinner in New York, "There are two courses open to a minority party. It can indulge in the politics of partisanship, or it can remain true to the politics of responsibility." This was in fact merely a lofty way of saying he was a man of cold political calculation.

As Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote in their book, Lyndon Johnson: The Exercise of Power, "Johnson knew that his party, in its relations with the Republican Administration, would be hurt by a basic policy of opposition for the sake of opposition." They added, "Johnson never let the majority of his party in the Senate risk the anger of the American people by blind criticism of President Eisenhower."

That didn’t mean he didn’t undermine the president every chance he got if the opposition could be handled deftly, with stealth, and never with any hint of disrespect toward the man who had been elected by the people of the United States. After all, he was in the opposition, and thus his job was to oppose. But how best to do it—to highest political advantage—was always uppermost in his mind. It would never occur to him to take actions that would undermine his standing, or that of the Senate, in the eyes of the American people. Compare that with today, when Congress has almost no standing with the American people.

So the diagnosis goes like this: Institutional breakage has rendered Congress increasingly dysfunctional. The breakage includes the redistricting mess in the House, the abuse of the filibuster principle in the Senate, and the breakdown of political discipline in both houses. These developments in turn have rendered Congress less and less capable of dealing with the fundamental and definitional issues facing and enflaming the country. This include issues such as how America is going to get a handle on its growing debt overhang, approaching seventeen-trillion and projected to explode within a few years, that threatens the financial stability of the nation. Another is what kind of nation we are going to be—a European-style social democracy or a nation committed to traditional U.S. concepts of limited government and measured federal intrusion into the private economy.

These are profound questions, difficult for the nation even when its governmental institutions are healthy and functioning. But they aren’t. And the resulting frustration breeds the venomous and pugilistic brand of politics we now see in Washington. Many in the political class and the media are quick to point fingers in one direction or the other, fixing on what they regard as the originating offenders. But that misses the reality that this is part of a much bigger picture. Obama, Boehner, Reid, McConnell, Pelosi and many, many others—they’re all part of the deterioration, and contributors to it.

It’s a syndrome, and it’s undermining American democracy. The governmental shutdown may be irritating, frustrating, disturbing and disillusioning. But it is but a tiny particle of a much bigger civic phenomenon—and civic threat.

Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.

Image: Flickr/Phil Roeder. CC BY 2.0.