Why is Politics so toxic right now? Why is there so much vitriol and fear mongering? I think I might have an answer.
In an episode of the Weekly Comment I talked about the problem of political toxicity, and how it was a response to ever growing executive power. I’ve had time to think about it since then, and although I still think what I talked about in that previous video is still a big part of the problem, I think I have a more refined explanation now. In order to explain it, though, I’m gonna need to split this topic into its constituent parts.
Before I explain the how and why, I need to explain the what. So what exactly is the Political Toxicity Cycle?
Since the president can’t get what they want through congress, they decide to act without it. The legality and or constitutionality of these actions vary, but in any case many of them are done without approval from congress. These actions are then interpreted by a part of the voting public as being hostile towards them, their goals, or their interests, which results in that portion of the public rallying and organizing against the political faction of the current president. If its an off election year they lobby the opposition party to do everything they can to undermine the president, and if its an election year they rally around more extreme candidates who WILL do anything to undermine the President.
cycle has 3 points. At one point there is Congress, at another point there is the Presidency, and at a third point there is the voting public. You could make this cycle more elaborate if you wanted by splitting up each of these points into more detailed parts, but I think this model is the best for explaining the big picture.
Here’s how the cycle works. A president is elected, and they have campaign promises and policy goals they want to implement. The most ideal situation would be that their political faction had overwhelming control of congress. But since this usually doesn’t happen, whatever control is there is slim enough for the opposition party disrupt the President’s goals. Congress is usually the slowest branch of government to act, and the factions inside it are constantly trying to undermine or undercut the other. This results in congress not being able to push through legislation that lines up with the president’s goals.
Both situations result in Congress becoming even more divided and less functional, which results in even less getting done. This eventually results in the President needing to take more action without congressional approval, which then angers part of the voting populace, and continues the cycle all over again.
A big reason this cycle exists is because the government isn’t functioning as it was intended. Let’s start with Congress. The framers intended congress to be the most powerful branch of government. This is easily seen when looking at the US Constitution and noticing that not only is Congress the first branch of government covered in the document, but that it is the longest section of the constitution, with the greatest number of expressed powers. However, congress was also designed to be the slowest acting part of government. Considering that you need at least of majority of people in each chamber to support a bill, this would make Congress the most likely branch to be dysfunctional. This was by design.
Not only was the dysfunctional nature of congress designed into the constitution itself, the intended vision for its practice also saw additional dysfunctionality. In the federalists Papers, James Madison wrote that we didn’t have to fear the rise of factionalism. Rather, we should embrace it because the multiple factions in congress would constantly try to undercut each other, and prevent the others from implementing their policies.
James Madison was correct in his vision that the factions in congress would work hard to undermine each other, but he didn’t predict that it would be just 2 factions in congress. He saw political coalitions being made to pass and prevent legislation from other groups of factions. What actually ended up happening is that the two sustainable political factions undermine one another through the use of parliamentary procedure and media manipulation rather than political alliances.
Another problem the framers of the constitution didn’t see coming for some reason was the existence of interbranch political factions. The framers probably anticipated that there would be multiple factions within each branch of government, and that each branch would have its own separate set of factions. Instead we got factions that transcend the branches of government.
I think these assumptions came from the framers understanding of British Politics. For a long time British Politics was a struggle between factions that believed either the King or Parliament should have more power in government. I think the framers believed that America’s political evolution would start at or near this point, where the first political struggle would be over whether one branch or another would dominate our politics. Instead we got a system where the fight was between different factions who tried to control the entirety of government, and in all honesty we shouldn’t be surprised by this.
The fight over which branch of government would have more power in the British government was settled before there was a British government. This was decided by the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution a hundred years earlier. Since that point the struggle within the English, and then later British government was between factions trying to control Parliament, and therefore have influence over the crown. The framers either didn’t recognize the political development, or they believed that America’s political evolution was going to start at an earlier stage than what they were separating from.
So those are the structural problems occurring with congress. The Presidency is probably the least recognizable by the framers. The Presidency was imagined as more of an administrator of the federal government. His job was to enforce the laws passed by congress and command the military in war time. Here we have a two-fold problem. As elections became more democratic, it became more advantageous for Presidential Candidates to make policy promises to voters. The president became more politically accountable to voters, so they have a motive for pursuing the implementation of their policies by any means necessary.
The other problem was the creation of interbranch political factions, which included the Presidency. This becomes an issue when the President does something that is unconstitutional, illegal, or politically divisive, because he has people in Congress who are willing and able to defend him from his political opposition. This results in the system of checks and balances in the constitution becoming irrelevant, because the president’s political faction in congress isn’t going to go after their own guy.
This problem then falls into the laps of the voting public. Those who elected the president get mad when their guys don’t do whatever is necessary to implement the president’s goals or defend him from the opposition. And those who voted against the President get angry when the president implements policies they don’t like, or when the opposition doesn’t do whatever it takes to stop the implementation of those policies. In anger and fear, sometimes natural and sometimes manufactured by media, they go and do whatever they see as necessary to prevent the world ending evils they believe will occur if the president isn’t stopped or helped.
So, if this is how the cycle works, how did it get put into place?
Part of the problem, as discussed in the previous part, are structural to the constitution, but the biggest part of that cycle, the President taking more and more power for themselves, isn’t a structural issue, but rather a political one.
The Presidency has been growing in power since the beginning of the republic, but the rate of its growth has changed dramatically. Back in the 18th and 19th century, the Presidency mostly grew in power during times of war. The American Civil War was probably the first major expansion of power for the executive branch, but the remainder of the century was a period in which the president took a step back from federal power. What changed everything was the Progressive Era and the Great Depression.
The Progressive Era, lasting roughly from 1900 to 1920 saw a series of Presidents and Congresses vastly expand federal power. The Presidents, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, started to expand executive power through the use of executive orders. George Washington issued a total 8 executive orders during his presidency. Before Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant held the record for the most executive orders, issuing 217 in 8 years. Prior to Theodore Roosevelt, a total of 1262 executive orders had been issued. How many did Teddy issue? 1081. He nearly doubled the number of executive orders ever issued in his 8 years in office, and these orders were far more expansive than what George Washington had issued, which included giving his secretaries permission to buy stamps on behalf of the President. This pattern continued under William Howard Taft. Even though he only issued 724 during his time in office, it should be remembered that he only served one term, meaning that he issued more executive orders in a single term than Teddy had. This would continue under Tafts successor Woodrow Wilson, who issued 1803.
The progressive era saw the federal government get involved in areas of the economy and individual lives that the framers of the constitution never thought would happen. The 1913 Federal Revenue Act established a system of legal recognition of Marriage at the federal level. Before then the only federal law dealing with marriage was the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act from 1862, which was almost exclusively targeted at the Mormon practice of polygamy.
The Federal government passed the first constitutional income tax laws, federal alcohol prohibition, laws regulating the quality of food in private transactions, along with laws regulating who an employer was allowed to hire, how long an employee was allowed to work, and how much they were allowed to be paid. On top of that the U.S. military became far more active outside the borders of the United States without congressional approval or a declaration of war.
The growth of federal power slowed down during the 1920s but picked back up during the Great Depression first with Herbert’s Hoovers policies, and then put into overdrive under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This period saw the creation of numerous federal agencies which regulate nearly every facet of an individual’s life. The Democratically controlled Congress was willing to give these kinds of powers to the executive branch because their guy was in power.
Throughout the Cold War we saw Congress give over more power to the executive branch through the process of rules making. What happens is that congress passes a law saying they want a certain type of new regulation. Members of congress don’t specify exactly what they want in a regulation bill. What happens is that a process is started by committees of bureaucrats writing and proposing the minute details of regulations. These proposals go through a number of public hearings until the appropriate body within a federal agency is allowed to vote on the proposals. This contributes to the power of the presidency because it’s the president that either appoints the individuals on the rules making and approving bodies, or appoints the persons who appoint them.
The first half of the twentieth century saw the legislative branch voluntarily give power to the executive branch, and this was most commonly done by Democratically controlled congresses giving power to Presidents from the Democratic Party.
Okay, so at this point we have seen the structural causes of the cycle, but this cycle didn’t really get moving until the 1990s. So why did it start at this time?
In part 1 we saw the how the Cycle works, but what got the cycle moving in the first place? To understand this, I think we need to look at the political make up of congress during the twentieth century.
The Republicans were pretty dominant in congress for the first 30 years of the century, with an 8 year intermission in both the house and senate corresponding to the rise and fall of Woodrow Wilson. But starting in 1931, the House of Representatives was absolutely dominated by the Democrats, consisting of 64 years of near uninterrupted control. The Democrats monopoly on the senate wasn’t nearly as powerful as that of the house, but between 1933 and 1981 they only had 2 brief interruptions in power, which happened to be at the same times as those in the House.
Now, let’s think about this for a minute. The United States congress was a virtual one-party branch of government for most of the 20th century. When ever the President was a Democrat they happily handed over power to the executive branch, and whenever the President wasn’t a Democrat, they had the power to take them to task as they saw fit. Very little happened in the federal government that the Democratic Party didn’t have a say in. But then the 1990s came, and in 1994 the Republicans won control of Congress for the first time in 64 years, and since then have only lost control of the house for a total of 4 years, and the senate for only 10.
Most millennials don’t appreciate how big a change this was. For most of us who are 30 or younger, the Republicans controlling congress more often than not is something taken for granted. But for Baby Boomers and genexers this is a radical change. For Republicans at the time this was a first. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute. For 64 years the Democrats could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Unless they were doing something involving civil rights, they didn’t need to talk with Republicans to get anything done. Now imagine yourself being excluded from the decision making process for 64 years. What would you do once you held those reigns?
If you were an activist your hope would be that they would finally implement the policies you’ve been hoping for. Cutting taxes, cutting spending, maybe a few social issues? Well, that’s not really what happened, at least not in the way the Republican activists wanted. Since that time Congressional Republicans have been most concerned with retaining control of Congress not for the sake of pushing through their own agenda, but in preventing the Democrats from pushing through theirs.
Now let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Democrats at the time. You’ve been the dominant party in the United States for as long as most people have been alive, so how dare these outsiders suddenly tell you that you can’t get your way. Since the 94 election Republicans have basically been a nervous wreck, afraid that they may lose control of congress at any moment, while the Democrats have gone insane from losing what they believe is their birthright. This is not a formula for civil politics.
When a Democrat is in the White House the Democratic Party lets them do whatever they want, and use parliamentary procedure to block any attempts by Republicans to hold them accountable. And when a Republican is in the White House, the Republicans put more effort into protecting their guy than actually pushing through their policy goals. This highly divisive congress results in the executive doing as I explained in part 1, and the cycle begins, and to this day continues to feed itself. Since the 94 election, politics has gradually gotten more and more toxic, to the point where we are today, the Era of Bad Feelings.
With all of this there is one question to ask? Why was the executive branch allowed to gain these powers in the first place?
So as we covered earlier, the structural reason the President has acquired so much power is because Congress by design is slow to act, and overtime has allowed the Presidency to assume for itself, or voluntarily gave to it, the power to act on its own. However, we never really saw this happen outside of wartime prior to the 20th century, so why did it happen then? I would argue this happened because of demands from voters themselves.
The later half of the 19th century was a period of rapid change. New technology impacted the economy, and the new economic realities impacted the social norms of America, and the rest of the world. Enclosure eliminated the ability of people to make a living off of public grazing land. Technological development then created a demand for labor that these newly displaced persons could fill. But these new jobs required people to relocate to cities that did not yet have the infrastructure to handle the influx. This resulted in both newly arriving immigrants and people from rural areas competing for physical space in the cities. This creates animosity toward immigrants, as well as antipathy for poor whites. The overcrowded cities are dirty, with people living in close proximity, lack of running water and indoor plumbing for many older areas of those cities.
On top of this the jobs created by the new technology are culturally unfamiliar in their work hours and conditions. In the old economy if someone was sick or injured, they could take some time off because they were working either for their own family, or a close neighbor, who would be more willing to allow this without letting them go economically destitute. But these new jobs had people working for complete strangers, and sometimes you would never meet the person who you were actually working for, but someone they hired to manage their business.
This radical change in the economy resulted in radical demands from the population, and the deliberately slow-moving congress was not sufficient to answer these demands. So more and more demands were being made of the President to act on their own.
So here’s the big picture.
Technological changes transforms the economy. The economy transforms society. Society demands the government address these changes. The government puts the power to make these changes in the hands of the branch that can act the quickest. One of the political factions takes control of the government for a long time, until finally the opposition manages to do so. The formerly opposition party does whatever it has to do retain their new position, while the old party lashes out because it doesn’t get its way anymore. Both parties then use the presidency and the voters to get what they want, which is power for their own faction in as many of the branches as possible. As this needs to be done because the branch that they voluntarily empowers now has the ability to act without their consent.
So, ultimately the fault for all of this political toxicity isn’t social media, universities, or even the old media. It’s our own fault. We demanded things of our government that it wasn’t designed to do, and the the political parties take advantage of these demands for their own gain.
It’s my fault. It’s your fault. Its everyone’s fault. We’re all to blame.
This leaves us with one final question.
The way out of this problem is two-fold. Are we willing to hold our own parties accountable, and are we willing to radically rethink what we ask of government or how the government works.
Holding our own parties, and the parties holding sitting presidents from within their own ranks accountable is a lot easier said than done. How do we hold our own parties accountable? Part of the problem from that lies in campaign finance law. Laws restricting how much money individuals are allowed to contribute to campaigns have ensured a 90% re-election rate for incumbents. This means that it’s really hard for outsiders to compete in elections, which makes it really hard to challenge sitting officials. And of course there is the ever present issue of Gerrymandering. On top of this, the currently existing toxicity makes it hard to break ranks and vote against your own party.
And even if you do vote against your own party in hopes of teaching them a lesson about not holding their own President accountable, there is no guarantee that the other party you’ve allowed to take control will respond in kind. The same can be said of sitting Congress people holding presidents from their own party accountable. If one party decides to do this, than that politically weakens them, which will likely result in their opponents taking control after the next election. And just like with voting against your own party’s congressional candidate, there’s no guarantee that the other party will hold a president from their own ranks accountable.
The other big problem is thinking about what our expectations of government are, and how the government can do those things. The US constitution is not designed to allow for the kind of policies we have been asking it to implement for the last century. It’s not designed for quick changes in laws and policies. This isn’t just a quirk of it being from the 18th century. It’s slow by design because the framers wanted a system of government that was more powerful than the weak Articles of Confederation but didn’t allow for the same kind tyranny that the British government was capable of.
Because we are asking the government to do things it isn’t designed to do we need to have a conversation as a country; do we radically alter our system of government in order to give it the power and speed to act on popular demands, or do we constrain the demands we make of our government. Do we acknowledge that our government shouldn’t be doing the things we are asking of it, or do we give it the changes to do what we ask of it.
Until we come to answers on those two fronts we can’t begin to dismantle the toxicity that emerged from the need to take electoral control of the government.
“Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change”, by Jonah Goldberg
“Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, and Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying our American Democracy”, by Jonah Goldberg
“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”, Johnathan Haidt
“The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”, by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff
“Addicted to Outrage: How Thinking Like a Recovering Addict Can Heal the Country”, by Glenn Beck
“The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism”, by Steve Kornacki