What is broken?

On the eve of the U.S. national election that is considered by many to be symptomatic of a broken political system, I want to reflect on what it is that is broken.

A consistent majority say they are unhappy with either major Presidential candidate. How could this happen? Why were they nominated?

The one-liner “Washington is broken” says more about the speaker than anything definite about the political system. It hearkens back to “the government is the problem” as a political position. Does that mean something should be fixed or replaced or destroyed?

Some are in a smash and burn mode. We see this in the eruption of urban riots about police treatment of suspects. It seems to be present in some anti-Washington speech. Should we smash the Lincoln Monument? Trash the Capitol? Burn the White House?

Some blame “the elite” – leading politicians, mass media, big corporations, billionaires, powerful unions, influential intellectuals or celebrities. Is this revolutionary rhetoric – switch the top and the bottom parts of society? Do people really despise each other?

Some are frustrated by “inaction” or “gridlock” – by politics not solving problems that fester for years, by bad laws persisting, by good laws not passing. Others are fed up with “hypocrisy” (hypocracy?), by politicians that lie or say one thing and do another.

Some are sick and tired of graft, of corruption, of “pay for play” – by greed masquerading as public service, by insiders helping insiders, with the rest of us getting the shaft. Others are just plain tired of politics, politics, politics, and want it all to end. Can’t we just get on with our lives?

In response, I first return to a point I’ve made before that we currently have a partial vote, not a full vote of up-or-down on each candidate. We have enough democracy to get people’s attention, but not enough democracy for people to express their views. So they’re disappointed.

A full vote would lead to more centrist candidates. One faction wouldn’t be enough for a candidate to stand out. Candidates who are acceptable to the largest number of people would be selected. Primary elections with many candidates should select the candidate approved by the widest majority rather the one with the greatest plurality.

A full vote would allow “third-parties” to get meaningful votes rather than trying to be spoilers. People wouldn’t be conflicted between voting for a candidate they don’t agree with very much who has a chance to win versus voting for a candidate who has almost no chance to win. They could vote for both.

The second point is that the entertainment media have an excessive role in politics, and most news is entertainment. The drive for headlines and updates, the focus on the sensational or unusual, and the hyping of celebrities and scandals lead away from political discourse. “The issues” are not the media issues – they are real issues that are now or will be up to the elected leaders to deal with.

The mass media treat the President like a dictator whose word is law. There is little connection between Presidential “debates” and what a President actually has authority to do on their own. Almost everything the media focuses on depends as much or more on Congress than the President.

Political education has declined. Civics isn’t taught in state schools anymore. People are ignorant of the separation of powers, the power of the purse, and the limits of authority. And so little abuses of power are overlooked until they become big ones.

We can go back to the basics of a constitutional republic or we can keep sliding toward dictatorship. We can’t do both. And that depends on what happens after election day.