Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why Stagnation?

Steven E. Meyer


November 23, 2012

By Steven E. Meyer

About $6 billion was spent on the recent political campaigns, and Americans were subjected to literally thousands of hours of often bitter commercials that frequently were filled with partial truths or even outright lies. And, now that the dust has settled, very little has changed. President Obama remains in the White House; Democrats still control the Senate and Republicans the House. Governor Romney and President Obama both made equally gracious speeches at the end of the election.  Both men pleaded for bipartisan cooperation to address the many serious problems we face. 

But haven’t we heard all of this before? It has become a vicious cycle—a bitter, nasty campaign and pleas for cooperation and compromise after the election. But once the reality of political intercourse sets in, there is little room for cooperation or compromise; and all of this then leads to the next nasty election.  In the American political system this means that agreement is reached all too often as a reaction, a defensive move designed not to resolve major issues, but to avoid catastrophe. Almost certainly, this is the way the so-called end-of-year “fiscal cliff” will be avoided. Just like budget deals in the past, both sides will pontificate and stake out their well-known positions on what constitutes fiscal responsibility. Already we are hearing the same divisive rhetoric about taxes that we heard during the campaign.  An agreement probably will be hammered out, but likely it will be limited to avoiding the cliff, not to fashion a long term financial future for the country. 

But why is this so? Why can’t we get past the ideological barricades? There are clarion calls for a “fresh start” and pledges to “reach across the aisle.” The problem is that we fundamentally disagree about what it means to be a good citizen, and our understanding of citizenship is deeply seated in our psyches; we loath to compromise on our deepest beliefs.  Our Founding Fathers thought they could get around this conundrum by devising a system of checks and balances and separation of powers. To accomplish this, they wrote a Constitution that established an intricate and often complex relationship among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. They wove democratic procedures into the document, but—given the temper of the late 18th century—they also feared “too much democracy.”  Since it was written, the American Constitution has attained an almost divine-like aura.

But, the Constitution is not divine; it is a social contract devised by human beings to establish a political community.  It was designed specifically the way it was because the Founding Fathers understood that human nature militated against compromise and cooperation and because too much power in the hands of one person or one branch could lead to abuse. They understood that politics was essentially adversarial, and they took to heart John Calvin’s understanding of human nature and Thomas Hobbes fear that without a well-designed social contract human interaction dissolves into chaos. 

But the Founding Fathers also recognized that social contracts are expressions of time and place, and even suggested changing the Constitution from time to time. This begs the question whether a Constitution written at the end of the 19th century is still valid at the cusp of the 21st century.  Should we change the social contract and, if so, how should we do that?  Can the Constitution be “tweaked” or do we have to start over?  How do we establish a social contract that recognizes the sinfulness of human nature, the bedrock importance of politics and the need for fairness, justice and stewardship?  This is an especially critical question for Christians because these are our values. 

While Christians can provide leadership and should be an important part in any change in the American social contract, we cannot do it by ourselves.  Such an important change needs much broader support in the American body politic. So, where to start?  First, I think, we need to begin by reaching out to establish coalitions of people who believe the system is unsustainable and needs change.  Second, we start with small steps—editorials, appeals to political leaders, organizing churches and denominations, etc.  Third, we begin to flesh out a list of priorities—such as, proposing amendments that actually require accountability in the work of the Congress and president, eliminating the Senate filibuster, allowing budget and appropriations bills to originate in either house of the Congress, establishing a line-item veto, and including the 1973 War Powers Resolution (or some simpler variation of it). These should be seen as initial efforts to tighten the social contract, shed its debilitating aspects and force political leaders to act more efficiently and with the greater public interest in mind.  

—Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”