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Washington Gridlock: Too Many Principled Politicians?

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 26/10/2015 Robert Alexander
WASHINGTON GRIDLOCK © Bloomberg via Getty Images WASHINGTON GRIDLOCK

It's no secret that Congress has attracted widespread ridicule from the American public. Just 14 percent of Americans currently approve of the job Congress is doing. Over the past few years, even dog poop has been viewed more favorably than the institution. Seriously, in one poll, 47 percent said they preferred dog poop to 40 percent saying they preferred Congress.
Much of this is due to inertia and a lack of comity within the body. A government shutdown in 2013 and perennial talk of shutdowns make Congress an easy target. John Boehner's resignation from Congress is an additional indication of the ideological pull within the parties. Boehner's struggles to placate those within his own party has marked his speakership. Bitter partisan and ideological polarization signifies the current state of affairs.
The ideological gulf between Democrats and Republicans is undoubtedly wide. Gerrymandering to reduce competition within congressional districts is among the main culprits for this chasm. Republican districts are solidly Republican and Democratic districts are solidly Democrat. Very few seats are up for grabs in any given congressional election. The rise of party activists and more ideological candidates have also contributed to what I term as the paradox of principles.
We have more members in Congress that hold steadfast to principles, which has contributed to an increasingly ineffectual institution. Americans would seem to want government officials who act upon the basis of principle, rather than political expediency. It would appear then, that many have gotten their wish as professional politicians have been largely replaced by ideological purists.
Compromise and negotiation seem like relics of a bygone era. When principles, ideals, and values are at stake, there is little-to-no room for compromise. So, while selecting leaders on the basis of principle can be positive, it also comes with baggage--namely, the inability to make policy strides in areas of general agreement among most Americans. Immigration, gun control, and abortion quickly come to mind. Although there is a great deal of bickering in Congress, most Americans can find consensus with these "controversial" issues.
Nearly 50 years ago, political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, described the political purist. Purists are drawn to politics due to their deep beliefs in specific issues. Compromise is not in their vocabulary, even if it means they lose at the ballot box. The purity of their beliefs should reign supreme.
Beginning in the 1970s, we have seen the rise of purists in both parties. These principled politicians are more interested in the righteousness of their ideologies, rather than producing policy from a utilitarian perspective. Congressional districts that are drawn to concentrate like-minded individuals exacerbates this phenomenon. The democratization of the primary process is another way that purist activists have been able to gain greater control over the dialogue and ultimate selection of candidates for public offices.
The emergence of "Tea partying" sitting Republicans in Republican primaries is one example of the devotion to principles. Although a committed conservative, Eric Cantor's discussion of opening a pathway to citizenship derailed his bid for reelection in 2014. Purity of ideology seemed to trump congressional power to Republican primary voters in the district. In 2010, the ascendancy of Tea Party purists Sharon Angle and Christine O'Donnell helped give Democrats rare victories in that midterm election. Once again, candidates (and voters) were willing to sacrifice winnable seats in the name of the principles.
Is governing on the basis of principle a bad thing? Of course not. Yet, holding a principle close to one's heart allows very little room for negotiation of that principle. This is especially true when it comes to social issues such as abortion or gay marriage or economic issues such as running on a debt-free platform, or when one signs a "no tax" pledge. Once such a pledge is signed there is no space for compromise.
In my 8th grade civics class, I can recall Mr. Haddix detailing the importance of compromise in the American political system. Like the blue whale, that term should be on the endangered species list. You could add "liberal Republican," "conservative Democrat," and heaven forbid "moderate" to that list as well. Yet, people need to compromise on a daily basis to get things done. Gerrymandered districts and the rise of purists have changed the complexion of politics, but the majority of Americans are still somewhere in the political center.
The rules of the political game, however, have made it very difficult for these voices to be heard. Instead, of politicos intent on producing policies to benefit the vast majority of Americans, we are "fortunate" to have principled politicians who are unwilling to waver in the sanctity of their beliefs. Because I'm an optimist, I'll count this in the column for Madisonian factionalism--i.e., checks and balances at work.

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