Published in the Delaware County Daily Times November 5, 2018
By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist
Mark Twain, one of America’s greatest novelists, was not just a creative writer. He was also a serious critic of the political world.
Mark Twain’s insults and opinions about elected officials are bitterly poignant: “…Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
It is difficult to ignore those words of Mark Twain given the functioning in Congress these days. Washington’s elected officials more and more present a “rock bottom” picture of dysfunctional robots in the nation’s capital. There is no debate or significant analysis of key issues these days. Outcomes are determined strictly along party lines. The minds of most elected officials are made up in advance and determined by their political party rather than any evaluation of the merits of an issue. Many of these elected officials often publicly announce their decisions before a proposal/bill is even introduced. Added to this, there is far too much uncivil/rude behavior, partisan screaming matches, and name calling on the floors of the Senate and House of Representatives and beyond.
This vitriolic politics pervading Washington demeans our democratic republic. The opposing sides on most issues neither listen to nor engage in meaningful conversation with each other about the matter at hand. The defining cry is always: I must follow my party line, right or wrong. The translation is: I am just doing what I need to do in order to get re-elected. That is my only priority.
Mark Twain summarized this subservient behavior in his very negative portrayal of political parties in the USA: “Look at the tyranny of political parties at what is called party allegiance,” Train wrote, “Party loyalty – a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes – turns their followers into chattels, slaves, rabbits … while shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech …”
In essence, Twain argued that government ceases to function effectively when too many elected officials “check their brains at the door” and become obedient/subservient in return for political party support. And nowhere in sight on the political agenda is the “common good and needs” of the American people.
There are only a few in Congress who seem to understand or care about this partisan deterioration. Independent Sen. Angus King from Maine puts it this way: “The Senate has literally forgotten how to function. We’re like a high school football team that hasn’t won a game in five years. We’ve forgotten how to win.”
Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, echoes that position: “Congress is weaker than it has been in decades, we are not tackling our great national problems…” he said. “Both parties – Republicans and Democrats – are obsessed with political survival and incumbency
One other critical portrait of reality has come from Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich: “I think Congress is totally dysfunctional. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Kasich in citing failures on gun control, immigration and cutting the federal deficit (now at an absurd $13 trillion).
Mark Twain’s criticism has at least one prominent historic supporter of his thinking about what creates ineptitude in Congress. James Madison, a framer of the United States Constitution, also argued strongly that the prime dangers to democracies were factions, i.e., political parties, which he defined as groups that push self-serving interests to the detriment of the national interest.
An editorial in Forbes magazine offered this sad summary: The “us vs. them” nature of our public discourse has grown so sourly partisan that we can no longer agree on basic facts. Each political party has its own experts and news sources, so it is entirely possible for a person to never hear an intellectual point of view from the opposite side. Indeed, intelligent and rational argument has disappeared from the Congress of the United States. So the merits of an issue, pro or con, are never really considered…elected representatives vote blindly according to the myopic dictates of their party.
Not surprisingly, the latest Gallup Poll (September 2018) reveals that 76 percent of the American public disapprove of the job Congress is doing and this lack of confidence of the public in elected officials has been consistent for many years.
Given this negative rating, how can this government malfeasance be continuing in Washington? The answer lies in an apathetic American public. A Pew Research analysis reveals that only 55.7 percent of the United States eligible population voted in the 2016 elections. This disgracefully ranks the USA 31st out of 35 nations (near the bottom) in this latest international study of voter turnout.
America must become better than this. Our nation desperately needs to wake up from its slumber and find and elect leaders who actually govern by considering each legislative issue objectively on its merits, communicating with each other, building consensus, serving the needs of the people, and bringing us together … before our republic perishes.
Joseph Batory is the author of three books and has been widely published on politics and education.