Polarization Part IV

July 26, 2014

By Stephen M. King, Ph.D.

“Political polarization,” “divided government” and “Washington gridlock” have been on the rise for the last 15 years. Public calls for compromise and de-emphasis on centralized government stand out in public opinion polls; yet, nothing changes, and the old order of governance marches.

What is wrong? What can be done to significantly and decisively make changes for the better? Polarization and gridlock are only the symptoms; the problem runs deeper.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s newest book, “The Bully Pulpit,” describes, in part, Theodore Roosevelt’s disdain for the “old order Establishment Republicans” and his preference to seek change through the influence and power of the executive office, using his energy and charisma as lightning rods.

Throw into the mix the work of Progressive Era journalists led by S.S. McClure, who sought to expose the societal evils wrought by the “capitalist hordes,” and Goodwin’s re-telling of these events and people and ideas leaves no doubt that central government would soon play a stronger role, both through legislation and regulation, than ever before.

The last 50 years plus has aptly demonstrated this. The original Progressive Era was the first of four waves of government statism, the other three being FDR’s post-recession reinvention of the executive office’s policy and regulatory expansion; LBJ’s social welfare-state explosion; and the post-2001 “re-nationalism” of domestic federalism, beginning with George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” and his expansion of Medicare insurance coverage and culminating in Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

In fact, I contend that, combined with weakened civic awareness and engagement, governmental and political gridlock today is the result of cathartic governmental dysfunction, including the unimpeded growth of federal regulation and governmental oversight, the breakdown of constitutional federalism, unbridled expansion of presidential power, legislative apathy and judicial oligarchy.

With each successive decade of an ever-increasing federal government presence in the lives of Americans (policies and practices championed by both Republicans and Democrats), the inevitable politicalization of policy priorities has superseded the need of promoting both individual liberty and the greater public good.

The result is a rising frustration and deep-seated resentment on the part of the populace toward the very institution that produced the laws and regulations that were touted as benefiting the people.

So, what is the answer? A hint: It isn’t more government — at least not the kind and type that is on display in Washington D.C. or in some cities (e.g. New York and Seattle) and states (e.g. Massachusetts) across the nation.

The answer is two-fold: 1) Unleash the creative and innovative power of the people (i.e., re-emphasize self-governance over central governance); and 2) re-establish the proper role of the limited function and role of federal government.

Here are two examples are worth exploring.

Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco and current Lt. Governor of California, and Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, agree on one thing: the enhanced and purposeful use of digital and information technology by citizens and governments will work to break down the rigid bureaucratic structures that largely inhibit sound public policy.

Newsom focuses specifically on the use of social media and its facilitation for open access to politicians and administrators in reforming local governments. Gingrich expands the picture, arguing that technological advances in communication and transportation, for example, are critical to ending “hyper-regulation” and statutory policies, such as Obamacare, that de-emphasize the role of citizens and their power of creation and innovation.

And yet, civil government is a natural and necessary institution. It provides justice, promotes freedom and secures order. The problem is that when civil government exceeds its natural evolution, it not only infringes upon the equally natural rights and liberties of the very people it is established to protect, but it’s misappropriation of authority and abuse of power lead to the gridlock we witness today. It is contributing to the rising levels of popular frustration, distrust and lack of confidence.

Public problems do not mean government problems. The public is far more expansive than the organ of civil government; it includes family, business, commerce, education and even church. Each of these institutions of authority and governance are critical to addressing the myriad of public problems. And each should be completely and thoroughly engaged in the process of governing; the job should never be left to government alone, especially not de facto unchecked central government authority.

For gridlock and polarization will only be addressed when the power of human creativity and innovation are combined with the resources and organization of institutions of governance.

Stephen M. King, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, holds the R. Philip Loy Endowed Chair of Political Science at Taylor University.

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