Living in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam and and traveling throughout Asia, I am constantly asked about American politics. These are not just “who is going to win the election?” types of questions. People ask about what appears to them to be an anger within the American population, a frustration on the part of America that they don’t understand. How is it, they ask, that people who have it so good are so angry? And, they ask, is the American system in decline?
I have spent many years not only being politically active in America, but also assisting other countries in building the democratic foundations for their developing political systems. In doing so I often hold up certain aspects of the American system as ones to model. But I have also noted aspects that these country leaders would do well to avoid as they develop their own system. These aspects are actually the basis for a lot of the frustrations that Americans are feeling in this election, even if they don’t know it. While race relations and the loss of jobs through globalization are certainly sources for frustration, I believe that the underlying source comes from the belief that nothing of substance that moves us forward ever gets done in Washington or our state capitals. The causes for that as discussed below are what I advise political leaders not to model.
It is a simple fact that both of our major political parties attempt to draw congressional and state legislative districts to preserve their party’s advantage. This has consequences detrimental to the body politic. Through the redistricting process, “safe” electoral districts are created by drawing the lines so that the districts contain either large numbers of Democrats or Republicans – meaning the other party has little, if any, chance of winning that district. The result is that people there get to vote but don’t actually decide which party will represent them because that decision was already determined when the districts were drawn.
Partisanship grows in such an environment causing many activists to believe in the absolute rightness of their party’s stand on issues. In a heavily Republican or heavily Democratic district, incumbents of both major parties are encouraged by their base not to negotiate or compromise with the other side.
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The result is that state legislatures and Congress are packed with partisans with little desire, or need, to work with the other side. Under such an approach gridlock reigns and frustration breeds. Common sense solutions to problems are ignored and those who advocate for such are branded as compromisers and accused of lacking political integrity all for the simple reason that they refuse to be held to a party position that does not benefit the majority of people.
When the idea that “we are right and they are wrong” prevails, people are turned off by traditional political parties and frustrated that no one seems to actually be trying to do anything other than stay in office.
Most people understand that solutions – real solutions – are generally not the property of the left or the right, but are found in the middle after negotiation and compromise. A system, whether in America or anywhere else in the world, that moves in that direction is a real democratic system with a future. A system, wherever it may be found, that is more concerned with partisanship and ideological purity is a system in decline.
As I explain to my friends and colleagues abroad who are working to build their political systems, there is a solution to overly partisan politics. Non-partisan redistricting can fulfill the mandate of “one-man, one-vote” representation while creating districts that are more balanced politically. This will cause candidates to move toward the middle where most people are.
Non-partisan redistricting will certainly not solve all our problems, but it will pull candidates toward the middle, create more discussion of common sense approaches to our challenges, minimize the need for demonizing the opposition, and eventually lessen unnecessary political gridlock. When democracy is strengthened in this way, much of the current frustration will be replaced with a realistic optimism. Only then can we categorically state that the American system is not in decline but is one that works and has a very bright future.
Clark Plexico is a former North Carolina State Senator, Country Director and Head of Political Processes in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), and currently President of International Strategies, Inc. based in Saigon, Vietnam.