During the sixty-two years ending in 1971, the U.S. Constitution was amended eleven times. In the forty-three years since then, there have been no amendments. Two proposed amendments passed Congress but were not ratified by the states. Clearly there is significantly less willingness to see change in government today then there was in the middle of the twentieth century. When someone suggests amending the Constitution today, people just laugh. Similarly, during that same period in history, the United States produced such major political initiatives as the New Deal, the construction of the Interstate Highway system, the race to put a man on the moon and the whole array of civil rights legislation as well as President Johnson’s “Great Society.” Today, the introduction of such programs and changes would hardly be imaginable.
In 2008, I had a lengthy conversation with a well-heeled and well connected Republican fund raiser who was very excited about candidate Obama. Why? Because he represented the potential for change. After all, what was his rallying cry (and the title of his book)? “Change We Can Believe In.” Many of those who supported him, and even some of those who didn’t, expected significant changes when he was elected. There can be many debates as to why he was unable to bring about the expected level of change, but it is pretty clear to all but his most diehard supporters and detractors that the Obama Presidency has not brought about a major transformation of the political landscape. The fact that an African American could be elected President was certainly an indication of dramatic change in the United States, but his administration has not been radically different from what preceded it.
It is worth asking why there has been so little change in American government over the last four decades. While there has been significant social, economic and technological transformation over that period, and certainly the international political landscape is radically different (e.g. the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China and the new prominence of terrorism), nevertheless, the United States government pretty much keeps on chugging along with little new initiative. Gridlock in Washington is the order of the day and while there have been a few additions to the list of entitlement programs such as Obamacare and President Bush’s prescription drug benefit for seniors, there have been no developments as transformative as those prior to 1970.
One possible explanation to this relative stagnation could be that people are simply happy with the status quo and see no need for change. However, this flies in the face of essentially all the polling that is ever done, which indicates Americans are profoundly dissatisfied with the direction the country is taking. Again, the election of Barack Obama was a strong indication that people are eager for change.
It is also true that different segments of society do not necessarily agree on the changes they would like to see. But still, most people would probably like to see a simplified tax code. Everyone agrees that our immigration system is broken. Inequality and the loss of the “American Dream” are widely acknowledged as significant concerns across the political spectrum. The loss of American jobs and manufacturing are topics that concern everyone. There is a bipartisan realization that education in America is losing its former edge and that this will have long term consequences. The demographic time bomb of an aging population desperately needs to be addressed, and our infrastructure is deteriorating rapidly. There are many problems and issues that Americans know need to be fixed, but the political system seems incapable of getting the job done.
Some people look to the mechanics of the electoral system for explanations. For example, some experts complain that gerrymandered congressional districts lead to more intra-party competition during the primaries than in the general election, meaning that candidates need to be especially attentive to their party’s base which is always more radical than the general population. This leads to greater divisions and less compromise in Congress. Others blame the outsized role of money and special interests in the political process, arguing that they make office holders beholden to those that fund them. Still others blame the primary system in Presidential elections, because it gives too much power and influence to a small number of activists and fundraisers.
While all of these technical issues may have a certain impact on creating gridlock and limiting change, they appear to me to be symptoms of the problem, rather that the cause. Each one of these issues could be fixed. Why is it that reformers cannot resolve these problems? If people really want to see change, why can they not effect it? There are many possible explanations, but I believe at least one reason is fundamentally social. There is something in the way our society operates that makes change in government increasingly difficult.
Looking at the process of change in most organizations one can quickly discern that a key element of success is leadership. If, for example, a company wants to change its strategic direction, it needs an effective leader that has a clear vision, is able to articulate goals and strategies and is able to convince a significant percentage of the employees that the new approach will bring results. We see the same phenomenon in sports. Winning teams need strong leadership and that is even more pronounced when a turnaround is in the works. In most endeavors, leadership is the key to successful change.
Over the past few decades, American society has become extremely skeptical of leadership in general, and especially in government. Whereas the mid-twentieth century was marked by a willingness to accept the authority of leaders, we have entered an age where leadership is constantly questioned. In politics, we see that the role of party leaders has been vastly diminished. The level of respect given to political leaders has dropped dramatically. Just listen to the opponents of the party in power speak of the President and you will see how little respect there is.
This lack of respect is not just limited to politics. Americans have much less respect for authority figures of all types, be it teachers, religious leaders, parents, bosses. We believe much more in the power of the individual to achieve results and question the very nature of authority. This is not an issue where people are divided along political lines, rather it is just a social phenomenon that is increasingly widespread.
Politicians and government officials understand that the people are not really looking for, or willing to accept, strong leaders. They adapt their style to the environment they work in. When the citizens refuse to accept leadership or accord leaders the appropriate respect, is it surprising that political figures decide that what they really need to do is take care of their most ardent supporters? Since they cannot count on the authority of their office to get things done, they focus on small things that please their electoral base. And if they were real leaders, they would never get elected in the first place.
Basically in life you get what you pay for. Americans have adopted social and political attitudes that minimize authority and leadership. Sometimes there are advantages to that. Personal freedoms are maximized. Entrepreneurship may be easier under these circumstances. But certainly government becomes much more difficult. Changing what ails the nation is very difficult without strong leadership. Gridlock in Washington is not the fault of corrupt politicians. It is not the fault of our electoral system. It is the direct result of the way we look at the world. It is our fault.