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The Dysfunction in Congress Isn’t So Different From the Rest of America in 2016

Chaos seeps far beyond Capitol Hill.

By Jared Keller


Supporters of House Democrats taking part in a sit-in on the House Chamber shout encouragement from outside the U.S. Capitol on June 22, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

The United States of America will turn 240 years old on July 4, and the cracks are beginning to show.

On Wednesday, a contingent of Democrats took to the floor of the House of Representatives in a sit-in to protest Congress’ inaction on gun-safety legislation in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub massacre that left 49 dead. Suspect Omar Mateen had managed to purchase an assault rifle despite being on a terror watch list, a ban on which Republican lawmakers had rejected after the San Bernardino massacre in September.

The sit-in was the first of its kind in modern history. As Speaker Paul Ryan cut the C-SPAN cameras, the dissenting members of Congress turned to Periscope and Facebook Live to broadcast their sit-in. The Democrats’ unprecedented occupation of the House floor captures growing public frustration with political inaction on gun control in the midst of America’s epidemic of mass shootings.

“I think we sent a strong message not just to our colleagues in Congress, but to the American people and around the world that we are sick and tired of violence,” said Representative John Lewis, the famed civil rights activist, at the conclusion of the sit-in. “Seeing [people] that are going into a club to dance and have some fun murdered … we have to do something.”

The United States of America will turn 240 years old on July 4, and the cracks are beginning to show.

The fact that Democratic congressmen and congresswomen had to adopt the direct action of 1960s college students and Occupy protesters to move the needle on preventing mass murder is sadly unsurprising. It was also not the only institution on the rails Thursday morning. The Supreme Court, increasingly deadlocked and dysfunctional since the death of Antonin Scalia, handed down a spate of lopsided decisions Thursday morning. The Court tied on the Obama administration’s immigration plan, kicking the decision back down to a lower court without setting a precedent. With a lower court injunction in place, the decision effectively dooms Barack Obama’s immigration plan, which would have protected some four million people from deportation.

And while some liberals may have celebrated the validation of the University of Texas’ affirmative action program in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the victory is bittersweet: As SCOTUSBlog notes, the ruling, which saw Justice Anthony Kennedy break from a 28-year record against affirmative action issues, was likely the consequence of the Supreme Court seeking to avoid a tie. A deadlocked court has slowed an entire branch of government to a jurisprudential crawl.

Even the Obama administration has found itself effectively powerless, the president’s legislative influence diminished by an obstinate Republican Party that controls more seats in Congress, more state legislatures, and more governorships than any time since the Great Depression. While Obama has certainly made good on his promise of “audacious” executive action as he approaches the end of his presidency — thawing relations with Cuba, wrangling the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress, and pushing for paid sick leave, to name a few — his executive powers remain imperiled by a sickly Supreme Court, as the death of his lauded immigration bill made clear Thursday. With the presidential conventions fast approaching and Donald Trump’s campaign seemingly fading, Obama’s influence has been reduced to a shadow.

Is anyone all that surprised that the world’s oldest democracy is creaking as it encounters every deadly obstacle of modern life? The efficacy of the U.S. government has seemingly been in decline for decades now. An infamous 2014 Princeton University study that examined 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002 concluded that the institutions of democracy are mere legitimizing tactics for the tangled agendas of a new sociopolitical oligarchy; as Talking Points Memo put it, “rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country,” regardless of how a majority of citizens cast their vote.

It’s no wonder the trend started after the 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which began the gradual rollback of limits on campaign spending that culminated with Citizen’s United in 2010. And outside contributions to campaigns have exploded since then; former president Jimmy Carter said as much when he declared in 2015 that current campaign finance regime “violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system…. Now it’s just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or being elected president.”

A 2014 Princeton University study that examined 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002 concluded that the institutions of democracy are mere legitimizing tactics for the tangled agendas of a new sociopolitical oligarchy

The American people aren’t numb to this dysfunction. Trust in Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court are all well below historical norms, according to Gallup. Millennials are increasingly unmoored from traditional institutions and skeptical of pre-existing power structures and organizational loyalties, according to Pew Research Center. Even Trump and Hillary Clinton, the parties’ avatars of regime change, are the most disliked candidates in the last four decades, according to FiveThirtyEight.

But even if the will of the people made a direct impact on the ideological expression of Congress, the results would probably be just as bad: While Princeton scholars were busy fretting over the new American oligarchy, the Pew Research Center discovered Americans had become increasingly ideologically polarized over the last two decades, to the strongest level seen since the Civil War — a fact that’s mirrored by the rise of the most polarized Congress in at least 60 years. And that polarization is not a result of the American marketplace of ideas facilitating the critical and methodical adoption of political ideology: Most Americans apparently pick their party based on how much they hate the opposing party, according to new data from the Pew Research Center. Partisans hate each other more than they have in at least 20 years.

But somehow this isn’t dysfunction; it’s just the new normal. “Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization,” writesThe Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch, describing how insanity became the currency of lawmaking in the modern American government:

It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers — political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees — that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal — both in campaigns and in the government itself.

There have been 136 mass shootings so far in 2016 — 16 of the nation’s deadliest have occurred in the last 10 years — but Congress can’t act out of fear of upsetting its benefactors in the National Rifle Association. Meanwhile, as Americans struggle to find work following the decimation of the manufacturing sector, it’s the upper echelons of society that are lapping up the majority of the income gains from the so-called economic recovery. Some 20 Americans own as much wealth as half of the country, while nearly half of the population couldn’t find $400 in the event of a disaster or medical emergency.

The dysfunction in Congress isn’t so different from the dysfunction of the rest of American life. And with America’s birthday ahead, there’s no end in sight.