“Political polarization,” “divided government” and “Washington gridlock” have been on the rise for 15 years. Public calls for compromise and de-emphasis on centralized government show in opinion polls; yet nothing changes, and the old order of governance marches on.
What is wrong? What can be done to significantly and decisively make changes for the better? The answer begins with the realization that polarization and gridlock are only the symptoms; the problem runs much deeper.
Doris Goodwin Kearns newest book, “The Bully Pulpit,” describes in part Theodore Roosevelt’s disdain for the “old order Establishment Republicans,” preferring instead to seek change through the influence and power of the executive office, using his energy and charisma.
Throw into the mix the work of Progressive Era journalists. They were led by S.S. McClure, who sought to expose the societal evils wrought by the “capitalist hordes.” Kearns retells these events and people and ideas leaving no doubt that central government would soon play a stronger role, both legislatively and regulatory, than ever before.
The original Progressive Era was the first of four waves of government statism, the other three being FDR’s post-recession reinvention of the Executive Office’s policy and regulatory expansion, LBJ’s social welfare state explosion, and the post-2001 “re-nationalism” of domestic federalism, beginning with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and his expansion of Medicare insurance coverage culminating in Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
With each successive decade of an ever-increasing federal government presence our lives, with policies and practices championed by both Republicans and Democrats; the inevitable politicization of policy priorities began to supersede the need of promoting both individual liberty and the greater public good.
The result is a rising frustration and deep-seated resentment on the part of the populace toward the very institutions that produce the laws and regulations touted as benefiting the people.
So what is the answer? Hint: It isn’t more government, at least not the kind and type that is on display in Washington, D.C., or in some cities (e.g. New York and Seattle) and states (e.g. Massachusetts).
The answer is two-fold: 1) Unleash the creative and innovative power of the people (i.e. re-emphasize self-governance) and 2) recognize the limited function and role of government.
Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco and current lieutenant governor of California, and Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, agree on one thing: the enhanced and purposeful use of digital and information technology by citizens and governments will work to break down rigid bureaucratic structures. These structures are what largely inhibit sound public policy and political directives.
Newsom focuses on the use of social media and its facilitation for open access to politicians and administrators in reforming local governments. Gingrich expands the picture, arguing technological advances in communication and transportation, for example, are critical to ending “hyper-regulation” and statutory policies (such as Obamacare) that de-emphasize the role of citizens with their power of creation and innovation.
Even so, we recognize civil government is natural and necessary. It provides justice, promotes freedom and secures order. The problem is that when civil government exceeds its natural evolution, it not only infringes upon the rights and liberties of the very people it is established to protect but its misappropriation of authority and abuse of power lead to gridlock. That is what we are witnessing today, contributing to the rising levels of popular frustration, distrust and lack of confidence.
Public problems do not mean government problems. The public is far more expansive than the organ of civil government. It includes family, business, commerce, education and even church. Each of these institutions of authority and governance are critical to addressing the myriad of public problems.
Gridlock and polarization will only be addressed when the power of human creativity and innovation are combined with the resources and organization of institutions of limited government.