When did politics become so toxic?


Across the country, thoughtful voters of all persuasions are asking how the American political system degenerated into its current dysfunctional state. I think there are four reasons, of which the first two were because of reforms that went awry.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, citizen initiatives instituted the concept of term limits for elected officials. Many observers believed that the power of incumbency inevitably led to corruption that could not be overcome by the voters alone. In state legislatures, term limits refocused legislators from building institutional knowledge and success to using their limited time in office as a platform for climbing the next rung of the political ladder.

The result? Instead of working hard to pass meaningful legislation, it is much easier to take politically expedient positions that will get you noticed. It encourages a culture of political opportunism and, today, term-limited legislators are constantly running for higher office, including the presidency.

Second, the reform intended by the Voting Rights Act has led to extreme redistricting that allows and encourages politicians to appeal to ideologues to win. Moderate candidates virtually have nowhere to go. This is not old-fashioned gerrymandering. It is packing minorities into districts that have caused large numbers of other districts to be dominated by the extremes. The vast number of Americans whose ideology falls between the 40 yard lines are systemically marginalized in the process.

Like the previous reform, this one also encourages officeholders who can shout louder and have more interest in being ideologically pure than effective.

The third weakness in our system, and among the most poisonous, is the excessive amounts of money that have poured into elections as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. We have been warned about the evils of money since the Old Testament, and it is particularly true in politics. Extremist candidates who previously would have floundered because of lack of widespread support can be propped up by a few rich supporters, or even just one of the super-rich. Many wealthy oligarchs may be sincere, but most have narrow and sometimes extreme positions. Worse yet, there are some who are trying to buy influence in American foreign policy.

Finally, the growth of social media and the corresponding decline of the mainstream media have had a complex and not totally understood effect on our politics. In unstable countries we have seen how social media can have an inspiring, democratizing impact. Yet here in America it seems to reward candidates who make the most outrageous comments or are plainly narcissistic.

More disturbing, the mainstream media, rather than elevating their game, have made concessions to our obsession with celebrity. Note how NBC bowed to Republican criticism of CNBC’s debate moderators and their questions. How ironic that a bully like Chris Christie can whine about a gentleman like John Harwood being rude.

It’s scary that the outlandish state of American politics has been the result of systemic occurrences that combined to create an uncivil political environment destructive to the country’s future. At a dinner the other night where this was the topic of conversation, someone said that they would not get involved until the environment changes.

Wrong answer — people create change. Perhaps a thoughtful Republican will emerge to win the nomination.

One has to think they made the right choice in Paul Ryan as speaker of the House. Philosophically he’s not my cup of tea, but he is obviously capable. We created the systemic issues that led to this dysfunction, and we also have the ability to change them.