Last week, I had the privilege to participate in a roundtable discussion on James Madison and the American Constitution at the Roger H. Simon Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia. It was a great opportunity to discuss one of the most important figures in American history in an idyllic setting with some of the leading scholars of the founding era. If you haven’t visited Montpelier recently, or if you aren’t familiar with its Center for the Constitution, I highly recommend you check it out. You will not be disappointed!
Engaging with the theory of the Constitution and the practice of politics in the institutional venues it created remains important today. A better understanding of constitutional principles can promote civic engagement. This is because the ideas underlying the Constitution are premised on the enduring notion of citizens acting in politics on the basis of equality to resolve their differences and compromise. It is not a coincidence that the present moment in our politics is characterized both by an inability to compromise and gridlock in Congress.
Congress remains dysfunctional despite countless efforts to cure its maladies because the treatments prescribed by some of today’s best thinkers are based on a flawed diagnosis. That is, they interpret gridlock in Congress as the result of the inability of its members to compromise. This causes such thinkers to overlook the role played by political inaction in giving rise to both phenomena.
Curing Congress thus requires that we question what we think we know about politics.
Fortunately, James Madison can help.
On the Importance of Knowledge
In an 1825 letter, Madison remarked that “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge” was “the only guardian of true liberty.” He was referring to the “Magnificent Institute” created by Thomas Jefferson and known today as the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Even so, Madison’s conviction that knowledge, and the effort it took to acquire, was essential to securing liberty and maintaining a free society is also relevant to addressing our own present political dysfunction. In short, we are not free to cure our politics unless we first understand the maladies from which it suffers.
The problem is that the way in which many of us sees politics today does not capture fully what happens in it. But instead of examining our own assumptions and adjusting them when needed to better explain the world around us, we cling to them ever more tightly. The predictable result is a disconnect between understanding and reality that impedes our ability to diagnose the underlying source of Congress’s sickness.
This is especially true when it comes to the concept of political polarization. No other idea in recent years has distorted our understanding of reality more than polarization. The conventional wisdom suggests that polarization between Democrats and Republicans is responsible for gridlock in Congress. Yet in a recent piece for Real Clear Policy, Philip Wallach and I write that the evidence on which the polarization thesis depends is hardly decisive. Polarization as commonly understand is more an optical illusion than a solid fact about American life. Put differently, the idea of polarized parties characterizes the appearance of politics, not its reality. We argue that a better way to understand Congress is to focus on what members actually do in Congress.
Consider the ongoing debate among House Republicans over immigration. The persistent impasse over the issue illustrates that the Republican Party is not as cohesive as previously thought. Similarly, intraparty divisions over fiscal issues explain why Republicans in the House and Senate are unwilling, or uninterested, in tackling entitlement reform or passing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Leadership is Vital
Getting beyond the simplistic concept of a polarized politics in which red and blue teams square off against each other in zero-sum policy debates highlights the need for a new approach to coalition management in Congress. For example, Republicans’ failure to fully acknowledge the reality of their divisions and to adjust their approach to governing accordingly accounts for their inability to enact more of their agenda despite controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time in over eleven years.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate should thus evaluate the way in which they manage their chambers in the current environment. Yet there is little evidence that they are willing to do so. As I write for the Washington Examiner, it appears that marginalizing dissent remains a favored tactic in the House. Doing so only makes Republicans’ present predicament worse by widening the gap between Republicans collectively and the people they represent individually. Avoiding similar dysfunction in the future requires leaders to acknowledge openly divisions among Republicans and to learn how to prioritize issues based on equality and mutual respect rather than fear and intimidation.
The situation is hardly better in the Senate. I argue in a recent piece for Real Clear Policy that the peculiar nature of the Senate’s dysfunction is best understood in the context of Mitch McConnell’s, R-Ky., record-breaking leadership.
Last Tuesday, McConnell became the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history and moved one step closer to eclipsing Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., as the longest serving leader of either party in the institution. There are many similarities between today’s Senate and that of Mansfield’s time. Even so, the institution has, under McConnell’s leadership, proven largely incapable of legislating in the face of even the slightest controversy. This contrast is a testament to the impact a truly skilled leader can have.
While McConnell aspires to emulate Mansfield, the two men’s views of the Senate differ dramatically. Whereas Mansfield saw a deliberative body in which all senators were equal, McConnell sees a factory, the purpose of which is to produce legislation. And whereas Mansfield understood the majority leader’s job as facilitating senators’ participation in the legislative process, McConnell understands it in terms of a foreman whose job it is to make the production process run smoothly. In sum, McConnell sees the Senate as a means to an end rather than as a valuable institution in its own right.
Expect Dysfunction to Persist
Partly for this reason, we shouldn’t expect the Senate’s languid pace of legislating to change anytime soon. As I point out in a recent piece for the Washington Examiner, Democratic obstruction is not the reason why the Senate remains mired in gridlock. Instead, the Republicans have all the tools they need to legislate. They are simply unwilling to use them. As I write for Law and Liberty, this unwillingness to act, to expend the effort required to legislate successfully in a contentious environment is why Congress doesn’t work today.
Self-government works only if the people’s representatives want to govern. By acknowledging the limits of our knowledge, we make it possible to identify the treatments needed to actually cure Congress of its present maladies. And in doing so, we follow humbly in the footsteps of James Madison.
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