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American politics: A dysfunctional mess

Oct 02,2023 - Last updated at Oct 02,2023

American politics are a dysfunctional mess, though the US never tires of chiding other countries for their lack of democratic institutions or failure to protect democratic values.

Both were on display this past week as President Joseph Biden, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, prodded other nations to join the US in defending democracy in Ukraine. Then while meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden mildly criticised the Israeli leader’s efforts to weaken that country’s judiciary.

While we continue to advocate overseas for democracy and its values, a recent Pew Research study shows that American confidence in our own political system has eroded to dangerously low levels, and for good reasons.

Congress is paralysed by hyper-partisanship, stubborn ideologues and arcane rules that allow for and encourage obstructionist behaviour.

In the House of Representatives, the Republican Speaker is held hostage by a handful of hardliners pledging to withhold votes to pass a very Republican budget unless he submits to demands for even greater cuts in domestic spending and foreign aid. Thus, the US faces, yet again, the very real prospect of a government shutdown.

Democrats have nominal (51-49) control of the US Senate, but face problems from two self-styled independents, whose votes are never assured, and from rules allowing a senator to “hold” presidential nominations regardless of the nominees qualifications. One senator has blocked 200 military promotions and appointments over disagreement with a Pentagon policy on abortion.

After Republicans blocked consideration of a President Obama Supreme Court nominee, later approving president Trump’s choice, and were gifted the opportunity of another slot by an aged justice’s refusal to resign in time for his seat to be filled by Obama, the Court has taken decidedly conservative stances on separation of church and state, abortion, affirmative action, and environmental regulations.

And while almost two-thirds of the electorate indicate displeasure with the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch,

 both parties appear headed toward re-nominating them in 2024.

The problems do not end there. With the complete collapse of campaign finance regulations, our elections and the entire political process are increasingly dominated by billions raised by the two political parties, political action committees and corporate interest groups to pay consultants and for massive negative advertising campaigns that further polarise and pollute the political waters.

Add state and local governments similar problems, and corrupt major media outlets that no longer report news but mold it to their political agendas, and you have a witch’s brew of increasingly polarised dysfunction.

The above only describes some of the problems confronting the major institutions that have, in the past, served to secure democracy in the US. It is no wonder that the recent Pew Research study finds Americans losing confidence in the country’s politics and institutions. Its findings include:

• Only 4 per cent say the US political system is working well. 63 per cent express little or no confidence in the future of American politics.

• 56 per cent are either unwilling or unable to identify any strengths in the US political system.

• 65 per cent are either always or often exhausted when they think about politics. 78 per cent are either rarely or never excited about politics, while a majority is just not hopeful.

• Asked to identify their feelings about our political system, only 2 per cent use a positive term, with 79 per cent using negative terms like “divisive,” “corrupt”, messy” or “chaos”.

• Over 80 per cent say the cost of political campaigns are so high that it keeps good people from running and gives big donors and lobbyists too much influence.

The Pew study concludes by asking voters to evaluate several ideas that could reform politics. Among the most popular proposals: term limits on members of Congress, age limits on elected officials and Supreme Court Justices, limits on campaign spending by individuals or groups, and a government-issued photo identification requirement for voting. But these proposals prospects are slim given that they must be passed by Congress, signed by the president, and pass constitutional muster by the Supreme Court.

Thus, dysfunction will continue to define our system, leaving the electorate alienated from politics, or frustrated and ripe for exploitation by Trump-like demagogues, and the rest, hoping against hope for change, but unsure how, and if it will be for better or worse.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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