In a virtually unprecedented move, a handful of GOP Senators, led by John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, this week prevented a vote on former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Defense Secretary to succeed the retiring Leon Panetta. Gail Collins of the New York Times and others have commented on the many changing rationales these senators have employed to decry their former colleague. Most recently and remarkably, some of these legislators have contended they are holding up the nomination vote in an effort to gain more insight into the tragic killings at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya last year, an event unrelated in any way to Hagel’s fitness for office or his nomination. Indeed, Hagel was not in government service at the time of that attack. I concur with these criticisms and those of many others who have contended that these senators have simply seized on any argument ready to hand, however unrelated, in their attempts to derail Hagel’s nomination, apparently out of fear that he will not always agree with their own shifting stated desires for US defense policy.
But I want here to consider three broader trends in American governance that have allowed this sort of political scenario to come to pass and to be repeated in its general contours, over and over again. The first development concerns how legislators now regard their roles; the second concerns the continuing erosion of claims for national electoral accountability for many in Congress and the last trend, the obverse of the first, has to do with the increasing ineffectiveness of broader electoral demands on leaders’ actions as they campaign to gain office. I treat each briefly in turn.
First, the American population is now sharply divided in partisan terms and most states routinely reflect that polarization by predictably sending Republican or Democratic legislators to office. That tendency has been reinforced for the House of Representatives by sustained and successful attempts to gerrymander districts to favor the party in power in those states. In the Senate, most of the legislators leading the charge against Hagel are from safely “Red States” and have been returned to office with solid majorities by residents who broadly share their ideology. They therefore have considerable freedom to pursue such claims and positions as they might believe may gain them some partisan or political advantage with their constituents, however oddly framed, paradoxical or shortsighted those may be. In a perverse sense, these public leaders are increasingly less accountable to the nation’s electorate and, indeed, it can be politically difficult for them should they choose to consider the citizenry as a whole since their states do not reflect a national heterogeneity of viewpoint. Put somewhat differently, for these elected officials, even indirect electoral accountability to the nation’s sovereign, a central aspiration of our country’s Founders, has been badly bruised, if not entirely broken in favor of their singular state-level constituencies.
Pointing up this difficulty in the ongoing debacle concerning Hagel’s nomination leads logically to consideration of a second major challenge in our current governance. Alexander Hamilton famously argued in The Federalist Papers that American leaders could be expected to check their most egregious questing for power, potential manipulative overstepping, imprudence and possible malevolence out of concern for how history might treat them. That is, Hamilton contended our nation’s democratic leaders could be expected to discipline their behavior out of a healthy concern for their reputation and hoped-for fame in historical terms. But this restraint on legislator behavior, too, seems to have enervated as elected officials of all stripes become less concerned about the longer-term implications of their behavior and actions and more concerned about tactics that might earn a small partisan advantage or send a signal to those in their specific electoral coalitions in the short-run. In the present case, that communication to supporters seems to be, “We are doing all we can to punish this fellow whom we should be able to assume, as a fellow partisan, will always agree with us.”
Finally, in many “Red” states the electoral framework has now evolved to a situation in which substantial majorities elect legislators who run campaigns arguing that the market may substitute for government, that any public regulation of for-profit firms is inefficient and “job-killing” and that compromise with those of alternate points-of-view is somehow dishonorable or worse. The stridency of these claims, especially the most foundational assertions that the market can largely substitute for the hard work of self-governance or that any non-defense related governance expenditures are pernicious for freedom and economic growth, has created a noxious climate for negotiation among those of differing views and a favorable one for grandstanding and scapegoating.
Unfortunately, all of these deeper trends appear to be in play in the current secretary of defense nomination scenario and none look likely to improve any time soon. We may therefore expect more of this sort of behavior from legislators that may erode prudential governance still further, even as it cheers and reassures their supporters--a heart-rendingly sad situation. The issue confronting the American polity increasingly is not the size and scope of government, but instead whether the polity writ large any longer apprehends and desires to engage the challenge of self-governance. The nation’s political parties cannot play this role, as they are structures that exist for the sole purpose of acquiring power. Instead, those who animate those institutions must accept responsibility for governance. From the evidence of the present example at least, the prospects for informed and prudent democratic governance are continuing to erode.