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Do Americans Care About Political Process?


It’s no revelation that Americans have strange attitudes about politics. We like results, but we don’t like seeing the work required to accomplish them. We fear the government running amok, yet grow weary of gridlock in which nothing is accomplished.

Political process is, as the term suggests, the way political goals are achieved. There are formal and informal aspects to this. Formal aspects are things like Constitutional and administrative procedures. Informal elements consist of backroom dealing, favor trading, and various forms of relationship management and networking. A combination of these factors are required to get anything done, politically. The extent to which individual Americans understand or pay attention to any of this varies.

Almost two-thirds of Americans believe their political side loses more than it wins. Republicans feel this much more strongly than Democrats, but even a majority of Democrats feel they are usually on the losing side in politics. If there is anything that makes the average American (whatever that means) tense, it’s the prospect of losing. We’re a country of winners. Winning is one of our core values. We celebrate that we beat the British in our revolution. We made no real gains in 1812, but celebrated several individual victories nonetheless. Our recollections of the Civil War, as an exception, are more somber. Americans killing Americans isn’t something we’re particularly proud of. But coming out victorious from two World Wars, not to mention beating the Soviet Union, makes it easy to forget more ambiguous ventures like Korea, Vietnam, or more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. To this day, we have a unique obsession with World War II, perhaps perplexing to outsiders because we joined it so late, and had not nearly the stake in it that the European or Asian participants did. But it is so vital to us because it provides a perfect narrative of heroes–us–going up against, and defeating, seemingly indomitable foes. We love winning and we love victory.

We feel much less sanguine about negotiation and compromise. Herein lies one of the critical dysfunctions of American politics.

Pundits love to talk and write about process. They think Americans care how the sausage is made; in truth, we care more that it tastes good, or at least that it gets made at all. When it comes to political process, we tend to feel like we make no difference at all. This is borne out by polls of voters. Never mind the large share of people who don’t vote at all; even people who do vote feel like it makes no difference. We vote, instead, because we see it as a means of self-expression. It is an exercise in cultural identity. It’s also a result, to some extent, of peer pressure–nobody wants to be the only guy at the office who didn’t vote. Since we believe our choice doesn’t matter, we don’t put as much thought into it as we should.

What we then see is a government that, while chosen by us, wasn’t really chosen by us. Congressional approval ratings are always in the toilet because, while we might like our own Congressperson, everyone else’s is on the take, lazy, or just a jerk. This combination of cynicism and apathy leads to inattention, and it is reinforced if not outright fueled by a media culture that thrives on producing drama and animosity. Government officials working together to accomplish something reasonable doesn’t entertain anyone. Senators at each other’s throats because one of them wants to take your guns and the other wants to bomb the shit out of Syria, however, makes great drama. But these eruptions are almost always just for show, and the real work of politics happens mostly when and where nobody is paying attention.

The Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, provides plenty of examples of these mechanisms in action. The struggle to get healthcare reform passed at all is not remembered in much detail by the mainstream. I remember, and I’m sure the politicians and pundits and lobbyists all remember, but the average American–who may not always vote, who may not consume news beyond what comes up on TV, in their Facebook feed, and the occasions when they crack a newspaper–just remembers that Democrats got what they wanted, and Republicans didn’t. Democrats won. To put it the other way: Republicans lost.

There is nothing worse than losing. Not in American politics.

This is why Republican efforts to repeal the ACA–vain as they are–persist. They’ve attempted to repeal it at least 50 times now. They’ve never had a chance of succeeding, not so long as Obama remains in office. It doesn’t matter, because achieving the repeal isn’t really the point. Using Congressional process to obtain an outcome in which there is no more Obamacare is not what’s actually happening. Instead, Republicans are using the opportunity to steal the limelight, to control the conversation–to look relevant. Making Democrats dance to their tune and go through the motions of defeating a repeal, well, it’s not winning, but the important thing is that it’s not losing. Even though such measures are defeated every time, the public doesn’t remember this. They just remember the valiant, albeit pointless, effort.

In a mindset where process is king, the idea of trying the same fruitless tactic over and over again looks like insanity. But in the amnesiac, cynical, apathetic, action-oriented American psyche, doing something is always better than doing nothing. This worked well for Republicans, for a while. More and more, though, the fact that Republicans aren’t winning has stirred up a lot of anger and resentment.

I don’t want to go on another diatribe about Donald Trump. You have surely heard it all before, if not from me, then plenty of others. I will just say that, if there is one thing people like about him, it’s that he is a winner. He “gets things done,” as his supporters like to say. This is crucially important. The concern is not how he gets things done–in fact, he is quite clear that he prefers bullying and verbal abuse to get his way–just that he does. Results matter; methods don’t.

Occasionally, Republicans cry crocodile tears over the fact that Democrats didn’t use the right process to accomplish one thing or another. The ACA itself, after all, was passed by a budget reconciliation measure which short-circuited the filibuster and thus evaded the requirement for a 60-vote Senate supermajority, relying on a simple majority to get it through. Republicans were deeply unhappy about this, but the attitude is both convenient and hypocritical. They may claim to be upset that the “correct” process wasn’t used. In truth, they don’t like that the Democrats got one over on them–that the other side won.

For once, I am saying this not to pick partisan nits or rub sand in the eyes of Republicans. I believe conservatives and Republican-leaning voters are more prone to this victory-obsessed mentality, but the issue really cuts across partisan lines. I have come around to accepting that, indeed, the process is less important than the outcome. One shouldn’t discount any tool in the pursuit of one’s political goals. I don’t believe that victory is everything, however. There is a tendency for people to have an all-or-nothing attitude, and that’s certainly counterproductive. A lot can be achieved via cooperation and compromise, even if no one gets to walk away feeling like a winner. It’s passe to talk about political negotiation–the idea of bipartisanship, today, has become almost a joke to me–but if results are what matter, and not process, it doesn’t seem to me that anyone is coming out ahead when everyone feels like they’re losing. Get things done–together, whatever it takes–and share in the victories. Winning doesn’t mean that somebody else has to lose.