Food for Thought: Banana Republic or Doughnut Democracy

“It is total confusion — a banana republic,” Rep. Peter King (R-NY) recounted after seeing a handful of Republican colleagues distressed after the sudden withdrawal of Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy and the broader disarray in the House of Representatives. “Any plan, anything you anticipate, who knows what’ll happen. They don’t have any idea how this will unfold…”

Americans have observed dueling political ideologies since the founding of our nation, but the weaponry employed today is far more sophisticated than in 1804 when animosity between Vice President Aaron Burr and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton ended with Hamilton’s demise at the wrong end of a Wogdon pistol.

The information age has allowed Congress to significantly escalate the “arms race” by employing new and emerging technologies to redraw the battlefield, increase legislative payload, and enable insurgent politicians to run successful incursions into what had long been a more conventional warfare between the parties.

To the first point, political operatives are now able to digitally slice and dice each congressional district to create safe havens for their party. With the assistance of improved technologies, we have the capacity to effectively segregate the country into red and blue, Republican and Democrat, almost at the push of a button. Consequently, demographic differences between Republican and Democratic House districts have become increasingly stark.

In such a way, the American political battlefield has been dramatically altered. Today, about six out of seven House members were elected with at least 55 percent of the vote, two thirds of House members were elected by super majorities of 60 percent or higher, and almost one in five won by at least 75 percent of the vote. For many members, especially among Republicans in Congress, the greatest threat that they face is a primary challenge from the right wing of the party.

doughnutCongressional districts today are more demographically and ideologically pure than ever before. Long gone are the moderate Republicans and “Blue Dog” Democrats. Representatives are typically hearing overwhelmingly from only one side of the political debate or the other, and facing little to no pressure from constituents to find a compromise. The result is a visible and palpable hole in the center a doughnut democracy.

At a base level, the democratic system functions as it should – as a free and open society demands. Our elected representatives vote as their constituents would like and are rewarded by getting re-elected. When they vote differently, or compromise those principles, they get replaced in the next election by a candidate with views consistent with voters in that district. But through hi-tech redistricting, we have literally and purposefully divided the country. In the current political dysfunction, we are seeing the consequences.

Information technology has also enabled Congress to deliver dramatically larger and heavier legislative payloads than ever before – not always with sufficient time to fully comprehend the meaning or consequences of the measure. At the founding of the nation, legislation – and any amendments – were drafted by hand. Later, typewriters and mimeograph paper made the task easier. The computer age sped up that process even further, enabling Congress to rapidly draft and amend legislation.

But look at what has occurred. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was all of 32 pages, Glass-Steagall legislation, 37 pages, the Reigle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Act of 1994 weighed in at just over 60 pages, taking Congress nearly 20 years to accomplish. Compare that with the Dodd-Frank legislation passed in 2010, which consumed more than 838 pages and was passed in a period of a few short months, rather than the years typically required to consider legislation of such magnitude.

These comprehensive rewrites of American law are being employed as political weapons to nourish the troops of one side or another with provisions aimed at benefiting narrow special interest groups, further dividing the country and causing significant collateral damage to an unsuspecting civilian populace. Moreover, when we reach the point where half the country feels shut out of an important national discussion, tensions rise and trust in and among our elected officials diminishes.

Social media has now become a weapon in the ongoing battle of ideologies. Facebook, Twitter and other tools provide renegade politicians on both sides of the political spectrum a new and powerful platform from which to reach a larger audience and influence public policy. Today, a single member of Congress can much more easily launch an insurgency to disrupt the government than was possible just a few years ago. And it may be a politician who is least liked by his or her own caucus but who is the most “liked” or “followed” online.

The good news is that information technology has equipped every American with the tools needed to better inform themselves and their government. But we can’t sit on the sidelines and complain. Rather, it is our civic duty to engage with policy and decision-makers in Washington and elsewhere in order to ensure a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.

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