For many, the 2016 election has felt more like a three-ring-circus than a serious contention for the highest office in America. Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton. Need I say more? But the election isn’t the only thing Americans believe to be merely a spectacle. When you go beyond the personalities at the top of the ticket and look at the way Washington “works” these days, it’s understandable to be frustrated.
“Isn’t Washington broken?”
“Does anything ever really get done?”
In reality, there are a lot of problems out there, and year after year Americans look for improvement on those. Our debt, our foreign policy entanglements, our immigration policies, our entitlement programs—these are major problems. Everyone agrees. But no progress seems to be made.
The One-Two Punch
Washington is a bit broken. But that brokenness isn’t simply a result of ineffectiveness of our elected representatives. Regardless of party, most of our politicians’ determination matches that of Lebron James with a championship in his sights. There must be something else as well—something about our culture that has made solving these problems so hard.
I believe the stagnation we feel in our political system can’t simply be due to our politicians; instead it’s a result of an ever faster news cycle coupled with a hyper-competitive political model. That’s not a cop-out. I am not just a politico shifting the blame. Everyone owns part of the problem, but I want you to see that these things are putting pressure on us—the people who work on behalf of Americans in Washington—and forcing us to interact with policy and the public in ways that slow down our political progress.
Social media and 24/7 news are all about the instantaneous dissemination of information. We crave it . . . and we all know it. Surely blame can be split between our desires and the media’s actions. But we must admit, we have trained (and paid) the media to satisfy us with a sugar rush of headlines instead of helping us truly understand what’s happening in our government.
Consider what it must be like to be a politician in this environment. As politicians and their staff approach matters of American concern, we have to ask a serious question: can I explain this in five seconds?
Most of our constituents want snippets of explanation. In most cases, politicians are forced to explain their vote for or against a matter of American governing in the same amount of time it takes to fill a Slurpee cup. If they can’t do that—if they have to break something down for people to actually listen to and understand (which takes time)—then they’ve already lost most people’s attention. This makes explaining a complicated compromise, say, on immigration, really tough—and politicians are constantly making the assessment: is it worth it? Though it might be a good deal, is it worth it if it takes more than five seconds to explain?
This only gets more complicated when you view Congressional races through a competitive lens. Current politicians can only work on issues if they convince voters to let them keep their jobs. In regular intervals they must fight for their seats. The competition for those seats has changed in recent history. States are becoming deeper red and deeper blue, and as Congressional seats become more gerrymandered, politicians will be increasingly worried about primary challengers from their own party instead of general election opponents from the other party.
Living in this reality makes compromise a scary situation for politicians. What looks like good policy making—working with people even if you disagree with them— becomes fodder for a potential usurper to claim they posses a higher saturation of their respective primary color. Often, the most appealing option for politicians is to just say no.
All Isn’t Lost
As voters who live in a representative democracy, when we see something we don’t like in Washington, the first thing we need to do is look in the mirror and ask, “How have I contributed to this?” After all, the government is merely a reflection of ourselves. The only clowns in Washington are the ones sent by the voters.
As Christians, we need to be the first to look in the mirror. And the question we should be asking ourselves is this: “What is our ultimate ambition? Is it to win voters to a partisan cause, or is it to make disciples who increasingly love God and their neighbors?” If it’s the latter, then Christians will be known as those who value understanding over bomb-throwing in the public square.
We will give our politicians our attention; we will invest a little more time to understand why our representatives do what they do in order to keep ones in office who we believe are beneficial to our cities and our nation. We will also see compromise as necessary and helpful instead of as the makings of a traitor.
Changes in our behavior and our expectations would give our politicians the freedom to work on our behalf to champion our positions. Progress is achievable. What our problems are today don’t have to be the problems of our tomorrows, but it will take all of us to get there.
Cover image by srikanta H. U.