We’ve seen plenty of evidence lately of the deep polarization in this country. Even as ordinary Americans, for the most part, have been remarkably united and many governors and mayors have worked hard and effectively to deal with the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the national politicians, political parties and their partisan adherents have found plenty to fight about. In national politics, sad to say, it’s business as usual.
The question as we look ahead is whether the trends we were seeing before the pandemic will reassert themselves, or instead there will be some sort of reset. Because those earlier trends were – and are –extremely worrisome.
For years now, it’s been common for politicians to label their rivals as unpatriotic and illegitimate. The deep freeze in cross-aisle relations in Congress has made progress there extremely difficult, though the crisis has given congressional leaders and members of the Trump Administration no choice but to keep bargaining until they hammer out some agreements.
Other trends are equally problematic. The federal civil service, for instance, has always fielded a lot of very good people – dedicated public servants who try not to be partisan, who remain independent in their views, and who support the work of whatever administration is in power. They want to make government work better.
But that task has become much harder to pull off in recent years, and the result is a civil service that is losing workers, institutional knowledge, and competence. There are still capable civil servants, many of whom have been doing their best to keep federal services on an even keel during this crisis, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that their impact has been diminished.
Likewise with the judiciary, which has become increasingly politicized. It’s a troubling trend in a branch of government that has generally stood for even-handed justice and, over the long term, has strengthened Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties. The president, however, likes to say that his biggest achievement in office has been to put very conservative judges into power, a claim that undermines the judicial branch’s standing as the pillar of independence this country has long depended on and desperately needs. Ideology will always play a role in judicial choices, but making judges more blatantly political is a destructive practice.
This extends to the media as well. For whatever reason, news outlets are exercising less rigorous oversight of government, and what scrutiny does exist is more partisan. While there’s coverage of national issues and politics, the trends have led to less robust local coverage, and a less healthy democracy.
As polarization has deepened, Congress has gridlocked, presidential power has expanded (not a new thing, by the way) and the government has become less responsive and less effective. It took a national crisis to lay bare some of these issues, but the trends underlying them have been going on for some time, and fixing them will take time, too.
This has to start with ordinary Americans. Voters need to reclaim our democracy and demand restoration of the system that made us a great nation – a system that adhered to the checks and balances and separate institutional responsibilities laid out in our Constitution. At the community, state, and federal levels our job is to maintain the robustness of our institutions of government, agitate to ensure that they are performing as they should, and recognize that if the trends I’ve laid out strengthen their grip our representative democracy will suffer. The threats may not be existential just yet, but they could become so.
Because here’s the thing. People may distrust government, but just as the pandemic has made clear that at bottom there’s no palatable alternative to an effective and competent government system, it is also clear that the only sure way to solve the problems and worrisome trends of government is through government action. Which means that, in the end, we have to forcefully step up as citizens to meet our responsibilities and insist that our public officials do so, too.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.