Why It's Hard to Get Big Things Done in American Politics

By Bennett Naron

On a sunny afternoon in late February 2016, I drove from Nashville to Birmingham. With a mix of Sunday boredom and sheer curiosity, I had decided to stop in Huntsville to experience a truly unprecedented occasion, a momentous rally of support for then-candidate Donald Trump. As I walked through the gates and gained access after the imposing Secret Service performed various security checks, I could feel a distinct emotion radiating from the attendees. One could almost taste this emotion: it was a bitter yet impeccably hopeful excitement in anticipation of hearing from the man seen as a savior, who would fix past grievances hurled upon the working class by an unrepresentative government. The radiant emotion present among the attendees of this rally was clearly one of anger and – dare I say it – scapegoatism. While this may appear to be harsh criticism, in no way do I blame these people. They saw an element of what was going on and rallied to fix it. I commend that action. Populism is not always unhealthy. Some view it as the most pure and representative form of democracy. However, what unfolded in the election of President Trump is reactionary, and can be viewed as insightful to our past transgressions.

As a people, what are our past transgressions? What have we done wrong? Electing President Trump was not wrong. He was put into office by a populace who rightfully began to view the government as an “us versus them” situation instead of viewing government as a body of Americans working for collective benefit. Although many point to politicians and bureaucrats as a source of lowered trust in our government, I contend there is a more rooted reason for our collective distrust in politics and government, and it is the same reason why it is often very difficult to get big things done in America.

Here is the short answer: political apathy.

Yes, people show up to the polls every few years. Yes, people passively and passionately engage in politics by viewing television news. But what good are these actions if all it does is keep the supposed “elite” in office because they are the only ones with the gumption to run? And what good does it do to listen to the balderdash spewed by political talking heads on the evening news if the listener does not act on their ideas?

This disconnect from politics, especially local politics, has caused much of America’s middle class to feel alienated. Yet, few are willing to point the blame anywhere near themselves. The “elite” did not cause this alienation. Au contraire, it was self-inflicted – a form of unintentional political suicide. Many common persons severed their involvement with politics. While this disconnect frees time for people to pursue other interests, we must understand the serious ramifications that may arise. George Orwell famously wrote in his novel 1984, “films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.” While this fictional warning may be extreme, we can put this idea in context and realize that our dearth of political participation creates long-term problems, namely, a lack of control among the governed and resulting policies based on knee-jerk reactions to appease the governed.

If we accept the idea that “elites” control the American political system, we must ask why this is the case. In our political system, our elected representatives are expected to typify their constituents’ interests. When the majority of people have a hands-off approach to politics, can anyone truly expect these representatives to fully represent public interest? In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam wrote, “TV-based politics is to political action as watching ER is to saving someone in distress.”[i] With this in mind, it seems rather silly for people to complain that their interests are not being voiced in Washington when they themselves often do not voice their interests to their local officials, much less get involved in the lawmaking process.

This political apathy resulted from a populace more concerned about immediate comfort than protecting liberties or finding innovative solutions to get big things done in politics. Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “The mind of America is seized by a fatal dry rot – and it’s only a question of time before all that the mind controls will run amuck in a frenzy of stupid, impotent fear.”[ii] I am profoundly concerned this has become a standard of American behavior. We are so focused on short-term concerns that we are, in the long term, incredibly unproductive. Because we use our valuable time unwisely, we have eliminated the time necessary to effectively use our reason to solve problems. Instead, we wait until a serious problem occurs and work using instinct rather than pure logic, letting primal instincts take over our minds because we have spent our time focusing on frivolous matters. There is little preventative action, only reaction.

We have resorted to implementing policy that makes us feel safer while actually accomplishing little. A perfect example is the TSA. Although this agency subjects airline passengers to vigorous screening, their success rate of identifying dangerous objects is incredibly low. In fact, only two years ago, the TSA reported it was unable to detect 95 percent of weapons that passed through its screening procedure.[iii] This failing agency was the product of a fearful America. After 9/11, there were calls to Congress to do something – anything – to increase safety. With a failure rate as high as 95 percent by the agency’s own account, it does not seem safety increased all that much. Rather, Congress increased the public’s overall perception of safety while infringing on personal liberties and, obviously, making airline travel much more annoying.

I pray most conscientious Americans do not wish to continue on this path of ineffective policy making and lackluster political involvement. Our country needs strong voices to engage in politics. Let us heed the words of President John F. Kennedy, who stated, “Today, we need a nation of minute men, citizens who are not only prepared to take up arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as a basic purpose of their daily life and who are willing to consciously work and sacrifice for that freedom. The cause of liberty, the cause of America, cannot succeed with any lesser effort.”[iv] Indeed, Mr. President, it cannot. Without sacrifice, we are lost.

About the Author: Bennett Naron is an intern at the Reid Law Firm. He is a student at Samford studying political science. Bennett may be reached by email at bnaron@samford.edu.

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[i] Robert Putnam – Bowling Alone

[ii] Hunter S. Thompson – Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman

[iii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielreed/2015/06/08/the-tsas-95-failure-rate-be-carefull-what-you-ask-for-when-demanding-that-congress-do-something/#429958927137

[iv] https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/JFK-Quotations/Roosevelt-Day-Commemoration-Message.aspx