This is a hard column to write because I prefer to be truly celebratory on the anniversary of our freedom and democracy. But truth be told, our democracy is barely functional. This is borne out in the extremely low approval rating of 17 percent (Gallup poll 6/6-6/10) for the job Congress is doing. According to Congressional scholars, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, the U.S. government is more dysfunctional than it was post Civil War. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently released their nonpartisan historical findings in a new book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” Because these scholars are renowned for their carefully crafted nonpartisan positions their conclusions are causing a stir inside Washington circles.
Their number one conclusion, not a surprise, is that our democracy is being endangered by extreme politics. What makes this book different is that these are the first nonpartisan scholars to decisively point the finger of blame on the ultra-conservatives that have hijacked the Republican Party. “One of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” This conclusion is worth reading again. I highlighted the last finding because, for me, it’s the most ominous for the overall health of our democracy.
Without legitimacy of a different point of view it becomes extremely difficult to put national interest first. Without the legitimacy of an opponent, democracy can’t work; it comes crumbling down to fringe politics above all else. Ornstein in an interview on PBS (April 30, 2012), noted that “From the first day of the Obama administration, our constitutional system hasn’t been allowed to work. When we did get action, half the political process viewed it as illegitimate, tried to undermine its implementation and moved to repeal it.”
Democracy does not thrive under these conditions of narrow mindedness. Democracy suffers when one of two parties see no distinction between national interest and party triumph. Democracy functions best from the center and we are far from it. And it doesn’t help when the Supreme Court in their legitimate landmark decision, Citizens United, opened the floodgates to undue influence by corporations and the super-wealthy in political campaigns.
It only hurts more with the recent decision of the Supreme Court to not re-visit the Citizens United case in light of how super PACs are warping our presidential election. Not only do we have one major party hostage to extreme forces, we enable that grip to tighten through continued lack of limits and oversight in political campaigns. Not only can billionaires like the Koch Brother’s usurp control of one major party, they can continue to do so without limits or accountability. Clearly, if we want to recapture a functioning democracy, this is moving in the wrong direction.
Where do we go to find hope, to free our democracy of these burdens? Maybe we can all start by saying we will not be dismissive of the political legitimacy of whoever is elected; that we pledge to stand first as Americans to solve looming problems. For example, we can all wish that the economy gets better despite the implications to the presidential election. Then post election we can continue to urge Congress to address the flaws in the Citizens United ruling. In the meantime, we can all try and be savvy voters. Read analysis from multiple sources. Don’t rely on television ads and calculated spin for your only source of information about a candidate or issue.
I feel like this 4th of July our democracy is crying out for a little love and respect. Find out what works for you and practice it. For me, I’m putting stock in the hope that Senator Orrin Hatch’s primary win over a Tea Party candidate could signal a return to a Republican Party that once recognized the legitimacy of their opposition and worked toward solving problems even if it involved compromise.
• Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas.