Political Horizons: Technology led to political gridlock

One thing I love about Christmas is the release of all the new books.

This year, perhaps because of the current dysfunction in politics, many of the recently released selections have a fatalist feel.

“It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, discusses how politics today is “endangering our very system of constitutional democracy.”

Their theme is the Republican Party’s imposition of a European-style structure on an American system has led to gridlock. Generally, in Parliamentary systems, the majority governs, but the U.S. has so many checks and balances almost anyone can obstruct, as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his allies did in shutting down federal government earlier this year.

And then there’s “America’s Failing Experiment: How We the People Have Become the Problem,” released nationally on Monday and written by LSU Professor Kirby Goidel, who argues for balancing public input and elite control “before our republican government fails us.”

His thesis is that politicians historically have tried to spin information for overwhelmed and poorly informed voters. But today’s technology has created so much information and allows so much interaction that politicians who have mastered the technology have misled a population that should be informed, tolerant and engaged.

“The result is a more polarized political system, rising inequality and institutional gridlock,” Goidel said in a recent interview.

“We have a system that allows people to be individually successful and still have these collective failures,” he said pointing to Cruz and the shut down of government.

Goidel says that in a world with too much noise, one way to attract attention is to be the loudest person in the room. A lot of people embrace extreme viewpoints and, through the Internet, find people who agree, he said.

For the rest, a far larger number, they are turned off by the often-vitriolic cacophony. “They say, ‘This is all too much. I’d rather be watching ‘Duck Dynasty,’” Goidel said.

The idea then is to find issues that cut through the noise and galvanize those people who otherwise don’t pay attention to politics.

Goidel’s theory goes a long way in explaining the rush of politicians rallying around Duck Commander Phil Robertson’s right to voice hurtful homophobic and racist comments.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, for instance, didn’t actually read the article before jumping aboard, said liberals were punishing the reality cable television star for characterizing gays as sinners and black people as happy, crooning cotton-picking laborers before the Civil Rights movement. Cruz and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., tweeted that Christianity was under attack, an oft-repeated narrative from many evangelical pulpits.

Despite vigorous defenses, none of the politicians, even when asked directly, would support Robertson’s angry, if widely held, opinions. The politicians, thus, aligned themselves with a popular television character and demonstrated empathy for a group of people who vote regularly but feel misunderstood — all without publicly sharing in those convictions.

Goidel says it’s not really the politicians’ fault, it’s the voters who are to blame.

“We all know in watching him (Jindal) that he’s inclined to think about the political incentive structure, instead of the long-term best interest of the state,” Goidel said. “Can you blame him for that? He’s playing the game the way the game is set up to be played. And that’s the problem.”

The incentives for a politician are for short-term victories. The decisions necessary to make a community stronger, not next year, or five years from now, but 20 years down the road, don’t often reap the short-term benefits necessary to get and stay elected.

Arguably, the politicians these days are better educated, less likely to be corrupt and more dedicated to public service, Goidel says. The difference is that the stress of technology on America’s politics has created a structure that is too responsive and less reflective.

His favorite quote comes from the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who was asked to compare differences in Congress in the 1950s and in the 1980s.

“The people are better,” O’Neill said. “The results are worse.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.