American Dysfunction


John F. Phillips, MA

In a few hours, the endgame of the 2020 general election will begin to play out.

I’m an optimist by nature and passionately believe in the ideals and principles that are the foundation of this great experiment in participatory democracy and in our experiment to build and maintain our republican form of government. I believe so much in these ideals that 46 years ago, I enlisted in the Regular Army and I swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I put my money where my mouth was at a time in our history when that wasn’t the cool thing to do and, at age 67, would do it again in a heart beat if need be, no questions asked.

I’ve been involved in politics since 1968 when I worked stuffing envelopes for Senator Robert Kennedy’s campaign. I worked my first campaign as a staffer in 1972 when I worked for George McGovern and have worked in campaigns since then. I’ve taught politics at the high school and college level and I’ve written about politics for as long as I remember. I’ve voted for Democrats and Republicans, and yes, mostly Republicans in the recent past. I’ve been around the political block a few hundred times and have seen a lot. I’ve earned my spurs.

I also know what I know and don’t know, and what I know is that what I am seeing now, as we enter the home stretch of this campaign, scares the hell out of me and is testing the optimism that I have about the future. I’m not talking about Donald Trump or Joe Biden. What I am talking about is the sinister assault by Democrats and Republicans on our values and system of government. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are not the cause of the turmoil we see today, but rather, the end result of the political polarization and division that began over 25 years ago.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize that history as others are better qualified to do that than I am. Needless to say, the history on both sides is long and convoluted. The end result, however can’t be more clear.

We have become a political system that has lost its way with respect to its core values of compromise, working together, taking individual and collective responsibility, respect for accountability, and working for the common good. Instead, we have devolved into a system that is characterized by ideological rigidity and purity, conflict, finger pointing, grievance mongering, hyperpartisanship, and a lack of political courage to compromise and develop a common vision for the country, leading to politics that appeals to the lowest common denominator based on victimhood and division.

Because of this, government has, in many ways, ceased to function. We have a “do nothing” legislative branch that spends it time demonizing the other side, posturing for the cameras, pursuing personal political power, and doing little to “promote the general welfare” of the American people. The executive branch doesn’t work with Congress, instead using Executive Orders to legislate outside the constitutionally established system of checks and balances. The Supreme Court, the supposed apolitical branch of government, has become a political football used by both sides to impose legal decisions that have a significant impact on the lives of everyday citizens.

Electoral politics has also felt the brunt of the dysfunction of the political system. Political parties no longer really stand for anything, being used by individuals and groups to impose a tyranny of the minority based on the quest for power. Both parties are controlled by ideologically rigid bases who punch way above their weight in terms of influence and numbers. Instead of offering a political home for those in the middle, pragmatists and centrists who are willing to find common ground have become outcasts as both parties feed into the grievances of their bases, encouraging the victimhood and “butwhataboutism” that pervades political discourse.

The media has also abrogated its responsibility to keep both sides honest. Instead of holding government and political leaders accountable while exercising a semblance of objectivity, mainstream media has become an entertainment business and instrument of confirmation bias, taking sides as they chase ratings and revenue streams, all the while serving as a full employment program for former office holders and “has beens” of the professional political class. Don’t get me started on social media.

The campaign that is about to end has irritated the raw nerve that is our current political system and has exposed its true nature for all to see. The venom, threats of violence, taunts, lying and misrepresentations, and posturing by both sides has made the United States a laughing stock in the eyes of the world. I can’t wait for this clown show to end.

But it never will, and that’s the shame. Over the next few weeks, we are probably going to witness court challenges, recounts, legal moves, and potentially, violence from the lunatic fringe on both sides that will make Bush v. Gore of 2000 look like a Sunday School picnic. Many will view a result decided by the Supreme Court as illegitimate. I pray for a landslide and clear early results on either side as that may be the only way we can avoid the turmoil that will result from a close result.

Our society, culture, and political culture is at a crossroads. We as a nation are staring into the political and cultural abyss and nothing is staring back. We have a decision to make. Do we continue down the path we are on and accept our political and cultural decline, accepting our current dysfunction, or do we step back from the edge? That’s what is at stake tomorrow and in the days to come. The thing is, we as citizens, through our exercise of the vote, can begin the process of stepping back if we have the courage to do so.

The late Charles Krauthammer always argued that we must get our politics right because politics impacts everything. He didn’t say that as a Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal; he said it as a serious political thinker and invested American citizen. Krauthammer argued that if we don’t get the politics right, we head down the road toward Germany in the 1930’s. We all know how well that ended. If we as citizens continue to let this decline of our body politic move forward, we could be headed there in the future. That’s what scares the hell out of me. I don’t think we are there yet, but do we want to take that chance?

Yes, this election is about selecting a president, but it’s bigger than that. Much bigger. It is about citizens retaking control of our politics and government and restoring accountability, responsibility, compromise, duty, honor, country, and “promoting the general welfare” of citizens. Our republican form of government gives citizens the ultimate political power to do so, the vote.

Whether Republican or Democrat, you have a stake in this election. I hope that you, as a citizen, will take the time and effort to make an informed decision and vote your conscience. No matter who you vote for, if you do that, you cast your vote with the highest of motives and exhibit the honor and moral responsibility that has made us a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. This is the essence of our democracy and republic I am still willing to defend with my life. I can look at myself in the mirror and feel good about the fact that I voted my conscience and exercised my responsibility to the country and to you. Will you feel the same after you vote?

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