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January 1, 2012 / Sandy Asher


Democracy is a slow, messy, sometimes painful business.  And yet, our system functions, perhaps better than it logically should.  It does so because so much of what the country needs is accomplished outside of formal politics.  Millions of Americans volunteer day in and day out, irrespective of political affiliation, to help improve their own lives and the lives of their families, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens.  Others accept employment, often at reduced wages, to serve causes in which they believe.

 We work alone and in groups.  We raise money, hammer in nails, pick up litter, care for stray animals, and look out for one another.  Labor organizations, lobbyists, campaign volunteers, social action committees (secular and religious), Neighborhood Watch, food banks, shelters for abused women and the homeless, PTAs, the League of Women Voters, Elks, Lions, and Shriners, tutors and garden clubs, hospices, Scouts, Big Brothers and Big Sisters – to name only a few – do much at the grassroots level that other countries leave to their governments.  Sometimes in vain.  It’s been wryly but not wrongly observed that whenever two Americans agree that something needs to be done, they form an organization and get to work.  Good for us! 

One of the great advantages of a democracy is the power of its individual citizens to educate themselves, think for themselves, and speak and act accordingly.  And we do so, both in and out of public office.  Blanket indictments of present-day American politics make it easy to forget that many American politicians and presidents have displayed considerable courage.  They’ve bucked their parties, defied polls, and, yes, risked loss of office to take bold stances.  American politicians have never been exclusively a bunch of greedy, ignorant, unethical, stupid bozos. Despite their faults and misdeeds, they are often dedicated, intelligent people, many of whom—believe it!—want to do good for their constituents and their country, even though we might not all agree with their definition of good.

 The land of the free has always been the home of the brave.  The creation of the United States of America came at a huge cost to its Founders.  Almost one in three who signed the Declaration of Independence lost every penny and every piece of property.  William Ellery of Rhode Island, for instance, had his house and entire estate burned to the ground.  Phillip Livingston, whose family was one of the wealthiest in America in 1776, was driven from his home, which was plundered, and died impoverished two years later.  One courageous soul at a time, they came together, weighed the alternatives — knowing full well that they were committing treason against Great Britain — and then risked everything on the Great American Experiment.  Ben Franklin’s admonition, “Either we all hang together or, most assuredly, we’ll all hang separately” would not have been spoken or taken lightly.

President Washington’s support for the treaty negotiated with England by ambassador John Jay is one of many examples of courageous politicians taking an unpopular stand. His Democratic-Republican opponents were livid that the agreement did not press the British to make good on compensation for slaves carted off at the close of the Revolution.  Nor did it obtain satisfaction for American sailors abducted by the Royal Navy.  The President came in for vicious slander that portrayed him as a senile old bumbler who wanted to enact the treaty to elevate himself to king. For Washington, however imperfect the treaty, it prevented a likely suicidal war with Britain for the ill-prepared young country, while it guaranteed America access to overseas trade. Signing the treaty led to a severing of Washington’s relationship with James Madison, father of the Constitution.  Washington never again sought his old friend’s counsel, and never invited him back to visit Mount Vernon.

Despite pressure to punish the South severely for seceding from the Union, a move that led to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s peace plan offered in 1864 was incredibly lenient.  After only 10% of those who had voted in 1860 swore their future allegiance to the Union and accepted the end of slavery, rebels could receive a Presidential pardon, and a state could form a civilian government. The generosity of his actions incensed radical members of his own Republican party.

Edmund Ross of Kansas, who disliked Andrew Johnson both personally and politically, defied his fellow Republicans by voting against impeachment of the President for violations of the Tenure of Office bill that forbade Johnson from removing all new office holders without the consent of the Senate.  William Pitt Fessenden of Maine also voted to acquit.  Their principled votes terminated their political careers.

Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 fully understanding the long-term damage his decision would have on the Democratic Party in the South and on his own reelection prospects.

Mark Hatfield of Oregon was denounced as a traitor at the 1965 National Governors’ Conference for casting the lone “no” vote on a resolution supporting President Johnson’s Vietnam Policy.

Putting principle above party, Republican Barry Goldwater supported the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon drawn up by the House Judiciary Committee despite his fear the vote could cost him his Senate seat.

Gerald Ford was heavily criticized for pardoning President Nixon’s Watergate crimes, but his decision prevented the nation from staying mired in criminal proceedings.  Ford also refused to allow Nixon to remove the Watergate tapes to his home in California as part of his Presidential papers.  Ford’s actions contributed to his defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy continued fighting for health care reform as he struggled with terminal brain cancer.  Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head in January, 2011, returned to a deeply-conflicted Congress to vote in support of raising the debt ceiling that August.

And who could have predicted that Vice President Dick Cheney would come out in favor of gay marriage?  But in a speech to the National Press Club, he professed, “I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish.  Any kind of arrangement they wish.”

Individual citizens and what they do – or don’t do – make all the difference, in and out of office.  Some say the human frailty of politicians and the certainty of politics as usual make the act of voting pointless.  In fact, this is exactly what makes it essential.

Voters have a choice as to whether they will allow frustration and anger to make them cast their votes for candidates way out in right or left field, or choose mainstream candidates from center-left or center-right coalitions who can form a majority that gets things done.

History tells us that, eventually, American voters have always returned to the center.  Though a detour induced by rage or inflexibility may affect the length of time serious issues remain stalled or ignored on the back burner, no one party stays in power forever.  A tally of the years Republicans and Democrats have held the presidency over  the last century (1912–2012) shows a dead heat of 48 to 48.  Only once has each party kept the Presidency for more than two terms in a row: Democrats under Roosevelt and Truman (1933–1952) and Republicans under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (1981–1992).

 Presidents and members of Congress are individuals, and their individuality makes a difference.  It matters a great deal whether the chief executive and representatives elected are Republican or Democratic. They are not, as is sometimes asserted by the disillusioned, merely birds of a feather. Whoever is in office gets to direct the show and chooses the script for setting the country’s political agenda and how it plays out—higher or lower taxes, business credits or tax loopholes, large or small government programs, and military intervention or restraint.

The person in the Oval Office profoundly shapes the country’s mindset by using the bully pulpit to console and rejuvenate the body politic. It wasn’t so much what Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan accomplished that linked them to the broader electorate but the feeling they engendered that people had “a friend in the White House” in the first case or that it was “always morning in America” in the second.

Despite the system’s limitations, faults, and abuses, historically it has adapted to reality (the realm of the possible), and the dynamics for it continuing to do so remain intact.  Hold your nose if you have to, but cast your ballot, the single most effective tool for influencing the agenda of politicians of all stripes.  Every vote counts.  A very different outcome might have occurred in the controversial Bush v. Gore election of 2000 had the confusing “butterfly ballots” and notorious “hanging chads” not come into play. 

In practice, the citizenry themselves matter under the American system of government, as individuals and as groups that have the clout to act on, not just talk about, their needs and grievances.  When politicians talk about what the American people want, they’re babbling nonsense.  There is no such political entity as “the American people.”   We, the people, comprise a kaleidoscope of interest groups that shift and realign depending upon the issues.  Individuals band into interest groups that operate on the block, neighborhood, local, state and federal levels. 

Historically, even groups that have been initially shouldered out of the competition for influencing the government have sought and sometimes succeeded in wrangling a place for themselves: labor unions in the 1930s, for example, civil rights activists in the 1960s, and gays in the 2000s.  While the addition of groups hitherto left out of the political conversation may not assure equal voice in all matters, they can force the conversation to take a new turn. 

Railing against “do nothing” government or calling for quick fixes will never accomplish much beyond garnering a headline, grabbing a vote, or selling a book.  Government response may indeed be slow, but the complex problems of a vast nation rarely lend themselves to quick fixes.  Inaction or indecisiveness by the government often means a state of equilibrium among interest groups so that no one of them can push through its agenda.  Annoying, yes, but deadlocks are always temporary, and will be broken – count on it! — perhaps by new elections, unanticipated events, the entry of a new interest group, or realignment of the old ones.   The give and take of interest group pluralism is erratic, plodding, and tedious, but at the same time it virtually assures the unlikelihood of mass upheaval – such as class warfare or revolution.  The slowness of the system, however infuriating, maintains its stability.

The reality of how American politics operates need not lead to pessimism. True, the system is far from perfect.  Some groups have disproportionate influence, while others — mostly the poor — have little or none.  Still, the facts are that over the course of American history there have been legislative successes, including ones that have improved the situation of those who are most helpless:  the establishment of minimum wages, for instance, and of public schools, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and more.           

Clearly the history of special interest government in America is not a monolithic story of unrelieved failure in dealing with serious problems faced by the American people.  In their ever-changing way, the American people ARE those special interests.  “We the people” – one vote, letter, protest, fundraiser at a time — contribute to the evolution of the American political system every day.  “We the people” carry it forward into the future.     


James Paterson, Restless Giant:  The United States from Watercate to Bush v. Gore, Oxford University Press, 2005.

 Robert Dahl, How Democratic Is the Constitution? 2nd edition, Yale University Press, 2002.

 Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Cycles of American History, Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

 Caroline Kennedy, Profiles in Courage for Our Time, Hyperion, 2002

The following short piece is adapted from a guest editorial for the Lancaster, PA, Sunday News “In My Opinion” column.  It appeared on December 18, 2011.


 by Harvey Asher, Ph.D.

Although partisan combat brought the government to the brink of shutdown on four occasions, political gridlock is too strong a term to describe the Congresses in session during the Obama presidency.  They agreed to an $800 billion economic stimulus package and a massive restructuring of the health care system. They approved free trade agreements with South Korea, Columbia, and Panama.  Other legislation made college loan repayment more manageable, provided new consumer protections for credit card users, and eased the way for women to challenge pay discrimination.  Congress also voted for tax incentives for businesses to hire additional workers, tax credits for first time home owners, and temporary reductions in Social Security taxes.  However reluctantly, they raised the debt ceiling.

Good things can be accomplished by even less-than-stellar politicos.

Why, then, according to the latest Gallop Poll, does the approval rating of that august body linger in the single digits?  Part of the answer is that public opinion is divided about the wisdom of the above-cited legislation. For example, many consider the economic stimulus package to be an unwarranted bailout for the very financial institutions responsible for the current economic mess in the first place.  There is strong feeling that they should have been allowed to fail and the perpetrators held accountable.

But the main reason for describing a Washington stalled in gridlock is the failure of Congress to act decisively on deficit reduction, to reign in the costs of major entitlement programs, or to enact broad tax reforms.     

Contributing to public disillusionment is the accusatory and hostile atmosphere in which negotiations between the two parties take place. Last minute compromises grudgingly agreed to, name calling, and strident language create the impression that reelection prospects rather than public interest predominate in House and Senate deliberation, the system is dysfunctional, nothing is getting done, and – in extremis – the death of American democracy is imminent.  Drawn-out recriminations by partisans from both parties over who is to blame for the current stalemate reinforce the notion that today’s politicians are a breed apart from earlier legislators, more selfish and parochial.

Truth be told, nasty and vindictive partisan politics is nothing new, and has not mortally wounded the ability of our democracy to carry on.  Today’s alleged gridlock can hardly compare to the post Civil War decades of weak presidents, with neither party able to gain much traction because of close elections. Rarely were the presidency and Congress in the hands of a single party.  Sectional issues predominated, based on still unresolved problems with Reconstruction. The result was inaction on the big issues of the day: tariffs, currency reform, and government regulation of business excesses.  After 30 years remarkable for inaction, the stalemate was finally broken by the 1896 victory of William McKinley and subsequent Republican domination over the next decade.

We have survived other do little or do nothing Congresses, among them the 80th, called into special session by Harry Truman and against which he launched fiery partisan attacks.  His 1948 “give’ em hell campaign” excoriated Congressional Republicans for refusing to expand Social Security, support higher minimum wages, endorse more progressive taxation, and for gutting efforts to establish a national health care system.  

In 1995, Congressional stalemate resulted in the government shutting down twice.

Clearly, when a single party has a small majority in Congress, or the President and congressional majority come from opposing parties, legislation is slow and more limited in scope. Textbook descriptions of how our checks and balances system operates – smoothly and cooperatively – omit the reality that American democracy has mostly been a slow, messy, painful affair.  Even in a best case scenario when one party holds the presidency and an overwhelming majority in Congress, success for major legislation is by no means assured. Three years passed between Franklin Roosevelt’s pledge to initiate a social security program and the arrival of the final bill, a watered down version excluding from coverage domestic workers and farm laborers.

Low ratings, cajoling, or appeals to logic will not cause obstructionists to embrace compromise and end gridlock.  Nor can either extreme out shout the other.  Imagine, instead, a vast, coast-to-coast demonstration of citizens calmly marching toward the polls on election day, armed with facts and such sentiments as “Slow and steady wins the race!” and “Two steps forward, one step back is still progress!” and “Moderation in all things, including elected officials!”  The only way to control gridlock is to vote the rascals out of office, and not let frustration and anger lead to ballots cast for a new batch of ideologues perched far out in right or left field. Avoiding such foolishness increases the likelihood of a majority who can work together to get things done. 

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Leave a Comment
  1. Maxim Matusevich / Jan 1 2012 2:55 pm

    Harvey, another thoughtful piece, well crafted to give its reader some peace of mind. You’ll be pleased to know that this has been my first read of 2012.

    • Harvey Asher / Jan 1 2012 5:42 pm

      Thank you for your encouragement, Max. I’m flattered to be #1 on your 2012 reading list.

  2. Ursula Argyropoulos / Jan 2 2012 7:27 pm

    Thank you for providing a forum that provides a blueprint for keeping emotions from running amok.
    Ursula Argyropoulos

    • Harvey Asher / Jan 3 2012 1:42 am

      I appreciate your stopping by, Ursula. Despite the difficulty of keeping emotions in check, a calm, thoughtful perspective remains my goal.

  3. Ben Asher / Jan 2 2012 10:40 pm

    It’s true that the current gridlock isn’t the first or the worst. But “voting the rascals out” means little when a senatorial campaign costs $10 million, the presidency requires $1 billion, and the Supreme Court equates financial donations with free speech. The result would be a new set of rascals indebted to the same large corporations.

    Republicans easily gut or block Obama’s proposals, but Democrats barely batted an eye about Bush. At the end of the day, both parties play golf with the same people….The British limit the length of campaigns and the number of television commercials (not that their system doesn’t have its own problems).

    • Harvey Asher / Jan 3 2012 1:49 am

      Much of what you say is right on, Ben. Still, not all rascals are alike. History shows that politicians, corporations, and even the Supreme Court are eventually influenced by the climate of public opinion, and that does change.

  4. Meryl Baer / Jan 4 2012 7:26 pm

    Interesting reading offering a much-needed historical perspective. My question – is there some coalescing of forces that get a great individual or group in power to work their magic – such as happened in 1896. is it more than dumb luck?

    • Harvey Asher / Jan 5 2012 2:29 pm

      Hello, Meryl —

      Good question! Many variables play their part: external forces such as economics and politics; group dynamics; individual actions; plus accident and luck. The task of the historian is to assess their interaction and, if possible, discern patterns. Not always easy!

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