Brown: American politics: Comatose but not dead

Phil Brown

Politics might not be dead in the United States, but they have certainly been beaten into a coma from which there appears no obvious sign of life.

If we are to look for the culprit for this crime against our nation, we need look no further than those who would be top suspects on any detective’s list: Those who would benefit the most. As it turns out, the ones who benefit the most from a total lack of politics in this country are also the ones who we think of as the faces of our politics: American “political” parties.

At this point, I should probably explain.

Politics, as they have been defined since ancient Greece, refer to individuals acting in the world amongst each other. As Newton correctly surmised about matter and energy, so will every political action have a reaction (albeit not necessarily equal or opposite).

Those actions and reactions, in order to have any significance, need a place in which they can be practiced and observed. In Greece, this was the Polis, the very heart of a city-state. In Rome, this was the Forum, where Senators spoke to one another and their public. In the United States, our Polis, our Forum, is our government, consisting of the three branches we all (hopefully) learned of in middle school.

In addition to a place in which to practice politics, politicians need the freedom to act as they see fit. By definition, if a person is restricted in what they can say or do by an outside force, their capacity for practicing politics is diminished.

In some cases, a restriction manifests as law or rules of behavior. For example, some legislators in the United States are prohibited by law from divulging certain information to the general public or to the media.

In other cases, a restriction manifests as an ideology, or a strict adherence to a predetermined set of values, judgments, and otherwise arbitrary ideas. An example of this is the Americans for Tax Reform’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. In short, this pledge is signed by potential or current elected officials and states that they will not, under any circumstances, vote to “raise taxes.”

That may seem fine, and even preferable to an electorate who desires, in general, to keep their money to themselves. The pledge does, however, undeniably restrict the possible actions of our elected officials. It can be easy to say higher taxes are never what we want, but it becomes much harder to say, straight-faced, that higher taxes can never, ever be the best alternative.

Political parties likewise restrict the possible actions of the politicians that owe allegiance by setting a platform and punishing those that differ on significant or highly-viewed subjects.

Punishment for acting out of turn may come as decreased party resources in the next election, less-than favorable committee assignment recommendations, or in other, far more obscure ways. In addition, punishment might not come at all if the actions in question do not significantly affect the party’s agenda, or if the punishment itself would garner more attention than the voting discrepancy.

This allows for some wiggle room with our elected officials, although not much. According to, the average House Republican votes with his or her party more than 93 percent of the time, and the average Senate Democrat votes with his or her party more than 94 percent of the time.

Here in Iowa, our six members of Congress have an average votes-with-party rate of almost 93 percent.

Those statistics do not by themselves tell us that Congress is currently an overly partisan institution, but they, along with the political rhetoric that we all hear day after day paint a surprisingly clear and ugly picture.

Two notable examples of such rhetoric are the 40 votes the House of Representatives has had to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the recent and public musings of the Senate Democrats, led by Harry Reid to do away with the filibuster rule (the so-called “Nuclear Option”).

These events, and others like them belie the total disregard for politics found in American government today. Instead, it appears the two biggest organizations in Washington D.C. have made a business of leading our nation, and that business will continue as usual so long as true politics are not awoken from their slumber.