US Government

Three Threats to Civic Health in America

July 18, 2016  • Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic

Asked what subject we ought to be debating, three longtime observers of American politics with deep expertise in how it functions raised arguably related civic concerns.

Former representative Jane Harman, President of the Wilson Center, worried about toxic partisanship:

At this writing, Congress is gridlocked on a vote to prevent terrorists from buying military style assault weapons. Some effective response to the largest ever gun massacre on US soil should be a “slam dunk.”  To me, fixing Congress and fixing the relationship between the President and Congress are our most urgent business. Toxic  partisanship is as big a threat as terrorism because it hobbles our ability to prevent, disrupt, and respond to potential attacks. It also creates the impression abroad that US leadership is under major challenge. Change will come only if voters demand it and elect a Congress and President who make it a high priority.

Former senator Tom Daschle is concerned about the corrupting effect of money in politics:

By consistently narrow margins, the Supreme Court has ruled that political contributions are an extension of speech and that any limitation violates the first amendment. Yet there are many constitutional experts who believe money is property and like any other property, can be subject to guidelines and limitations.

Money in politics is by far the most corrosive and dangerous single factor undermining the institutions of our democratic republic today. Fundraising demands more and more of an elected office-holder’s time. Paying for access is increasingly accepted as common practice. There is a direct link between the dysfunction in Washington and the ever-escalating political money chase. It gets worse with every passing election cycle.

If nothing is done, the very foundation of our institutions of government is in danger of complete collapse. Is a political contribution an extension of  speech or the acquisition of property? It is essential that the people of this country answer that question soon and that, once and for all, it is clarified in our constitution.

And Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA, wondered why Americans dislike politicians:

Why do politicians have such a bad reputation when they are actually engaging in public service, motivated mostly by ideas, sometimes even principles, and are nearly always behaving with and acting with decency and decorum? To my view, Trump has demonstrated what happens when someone just wants to get ahead selfishly — and does not comport his behavior to common norms of candidates. Will people think more (or less?!) of politicians after experiencing this rogue candidacy?

All three are speakers this week at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. To comment on any of these matters write

This article originally appeared at The Atlantic.