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Government Dysfunction: Introductory Remarks by Michael Waldman

Our political system, our government, in fundamental ways, is broken. The question for us all is: what can we do about it?

February 12, 2014

We are hugely grateful to all of you for being here on this frigid day, in this beautiful space, to grapple with a major challenge that faces the country we love.  Our political system, our government, in fundamental ways, are broken. The question for us all is: what can we do about it?  Not just to bemoan it, but what solutions can we advance so our government and our politics becomes a meaningful and powerful instrument of common purpose again for us all. 

We start by thanking our partners in this effort today: the Hewlett Foundation and especially Larry Kramer and Daniel Stid who have been remarkable in their enthusiasm for this event and this work.  Hewlett’s entrance into this field has been tremendous, has energized us, and could make a big difference – especially the way they’ve done it, their openness to feedback, their engagement with ideas which we’ll see all on display for the next two days. I also want to thank the other philanthropists and funders here who support this effort to revitalize American democracy. 

I also want to thank and point out a number of my colleagues from the Brennan Center.  They made this day possible: Jennifer Weiss-Wolf who spearheaded this effort; Jeanine Plant-Chirlin, who put the pieces together for the substantive conversations; Jafreen Uddin, Anna Coe, Kim Lubrano, Sophia Kerby and many others. Thank you, too, to Mark Schmitt, whom you know from his long career in government, philanthropy and journalism….

The topic and the timing couldn’t be more urgent.  You could probably say that at almost any point in American history – but we feel that the pressures on American democracy have been building for years and years. But in a tangible way in the past year or two, those longstanding trends towards dysfunction have tipped toward a kind of crisis. 

Of course American politics, American governance never, ever has been tidy.  It has never been linear. There’s always been polarization. There’s always been partisanship.  There’s always been intense fighting and occasional irrationality.  I just spent much of the last year researching some early history of American constitutionalism, and I was struck by how many of the things we worry about today have been present from the beginning. Even the Founding Fathers had to pander to the Tea Party.  (It was the actual Tea Party!) People were irrationally afraid of overreach from Washington since it was George Washington. And especially relevant to today, the very first partisan gerrymander took place in the very first Congressional election, when Patrick Henry drew a Congressional district to try to keep James Madison from getting elected to Congress.  So many of these things didn’t start last week or last year. They’re baked into the DNA of American government. Most of the country’s history has been long stretches of paralysis punctuated by occasional periods of progress, often-sudden progress.  That’s just the way it is. 

But in recent years things have begun to happen that go deeper, that go in a more troubling direction than the norm in American politics and governance.  We all know the litany: The shutdowns and the showdowns. The tribalism on Capitol Hill that supplants normal partisanship. The paralysis. More filibusters than in the previous century put together. A dystopian campaign finance system dominated by dark money, where billionaires proudly sponsor presidential candidates as if they were racehorses.  Those are among the reasons why trust in government has plunged to the lowest level in decades, respect for Congress is unmeasurable, and why the Gallup Poll for the first time in years identified governmental dysfunction as the number one issue concerning people last fall. 

Those are the immediate symptoms. In the statement of purpose we expressed the view that there is a fundamental mismatch between the institutions of American democracy and the forces of American politics. Grappling with that current mismatch is what this conference is all about. We believe that if we don’t address these issues, things are only going to get worse for American governance.  There’s no magical automatic equilibrium that’s going to reassert itself.  And given the looming challenges we face – climate change, economic growth, economic inequality, taxes, tax reform, whatever it might be – if we don’t fix the systems, we won’t solve the problems.  One of the premises of the next two days is that leadership isn’t going to be enough, better sentiment among elected officials isn’t going to be enough.  That there are potential changes in the way we run our government, the way we run our institutions that need to be encouraged and addressed. All that is the bad news. 

There is good news, too.  There are green shoots of reform.  People are starting to really focus.  Look at just in the last few months: We had the first steps towards filibuster reform in the Senate.  We had small donor public financing come within one vote of enactment in Albany.  Yesterday – and this shouldn’t be newsworthy – the House of Representatives passed a clean debt ceiling extension because of the recognition there would be massive political blowback if they were going to do anything else. People in power know that people are watching and are concerned.  Later today we will hear from Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, co-chairs of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration.  They’re like figures from an alternate universe where people from both parties can get together and solve divisive issues.  They will talk to us about how they got that done, and what lessons we can learn.  So there are positive trends and positive stirrings. 

And your presence here is evidence of a further positive trend: outside the government and outside the political system, people are starting to really work on this.  Now we all care about these democracy issues, we’ve all grown increasingly alarmed by the crisis and dysfunction – but in many ways we’ve worked in our various communities.  We’ve had conversations among ourselves, whether it’s funders or scholars or activists or journalists.  So one goal for today is to bring those different communities together. The collision of those views can be useful, and there can be mutual education and mutual agreement too. 

We want to encourage you to think about proceeding with a few thoughts in mind…

First, we want to focus on solutions.  It’s too easy to slip into an analysis of the problems, of root causes.  And we do have to ask some of those questions.  We will talk about redistricting. Does gerrymandering deserve the bum rap it gets as a driver of polarization in Congress?  Analysis is something we’re good at – but it is emphatically not enough. I believe passionately that there is a craving for the next generation of policy reforms in the area of democracy and governance, for people to engage with and rally around.  It’s hard, but there’s a hunger for it – and there will be a movement in the political world if we can come up with some of those ideas. And we must recognize that they can’t be stale.  We can’t ride into battle under a tattered flag, with ideas were last new in the 1970s.  We need to look seriously at the new positive trends such as the digital world, small donors in campaign finance, a whole bunch of other things – all to ask what about the next wave – not the last two or three – of reform ideas might be. 

Second, toward that end we must ask ourselves tough and possibly disconcerting questions. We all have our preconceptions, we all have the ideas we’ve been wedded to for a long time. After all, if we were going to have a conference on political reform at any other point over the past century here in Greenwich Village, a lot of the theme and a lot of the agitation would have been: “How can we break the power of party bosses?”  Well now we see some of the downsides, the weaknesses of parties that have come out of some of the reforms that people like me and many of us here advanced. We need to be honest about that.  How do we have strong parties without bringing back Tammany Hall?  How do we have a robust campaign finance system?  How do we make government work not just so that it’s clear and hygienic but that it actually can do the job?  That’s a challenge but we need to “think anew,” as Lincoln said. 

And finally I hope we’ll recognize that change of this kind requires a political strategy. “Dysfunction concedes nothing without a struggle,” as Frederick Douglass never said – but if he had said it, he would have been right.  You’ve never had political reform, you’ve never had substantial change in the way government works without deep public. And so what that means is that as we talk about ideas, we have to think simultaneously about the strategies to enact those ideas. This is not a matter for the left alone, or the right alone, or the center.  We’ve got folks here representing all those political approaches.  We think that there is potential common ground . . . but even more that there is uncharted ground with the vast territory of the American public who are mad at government and mad at politics and don’t views themselves in any distinct ideological camp.   I am always reminded of a signal moment in American politics around these issues. Twenty two years ago Ross Perot got 19 percent of the vote as a third party candidate talking about the dysfunction of American government and the brokenness of American politics after it was clear to everybody he was out of his mind. Normally American political change when that happens one of the two major political parties coopts that new force.  That’s what FDR did with the Progressives, and what Nixon did with the George Wallace vote. But after 1992, that didn’t happen. That Perot vote and the millions beyond it are the jump ball of American politics. They choose who wins the elections.  They’ve taken on new forms, some good, some bad but there is a public that can and must be engaged and not necessarily traditional ways. 

What do we at the Brennan Center hope to get out of this conversation? We hope for new ideas, yes; new energy, a sense of common urgency, maybe a little common panic about what’s happening and a common determination to work together. Not necessarily consensus about what ideas make sense, though that would be great.  We want a research agenda going forward that we and other groups can focus on.  What do we know? What don’t we know? What will we need to know to be able to make change?  At the end of the conference we don’t want people to just walk out feeling that they were happy to be indoors in a warm and welcoming space.  We’re going to be producing, for example, a book that John Kowal will talk about, of some of the ideas. WE hope some of them will come from you, and that you can participate in that.  We’ll be creating a communications hub to keep the conversation going, and a research agenda.  A whole host of other things.  But I want you to keep that in mind, from the beginning and think about way we can continue the conversation if it is fruitful going forward. 

I want to introduce and turn this over to Larry Kramer.  Larry is somebody who through his scholarship has taught us that it is—in the title of his classic book – The People Themselves who very often make institutional change in America, outside the four walls of government or courts.  He has been a professor at NYU School of Law, was a member of the board at the Brennan Center (although we did not overlap).  He has been the revered Dean of Stamford Law School and is now the president of the Hewlett Foundation.  As I said the Foundation is taking exciting direction on these issues, really forcing us all the think about issues of polarization, issues of division in a way that has already shakes and remakes our discussions.  We’re grateful to you Larry for being here for supporting us.  

(Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and accuracy.)