The State(ment) of the Union


The article’s photo is of Nebraska’s unicameral—one house—nonpartisan legislature.

From 1787-1788, the ratification of our present form of government was never a foregone conclusion. A powerful faction, the Anti-Federalists, opposed the implementation of the Constitution for fear that it failed to protect the basic civil liberties of Americans. Only the fierce efforts of the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (for the time being) forced the Constitution to ratification. On June 21st, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to approve the document, the threshold sufficient for its 4,543 words to guide a new nation. An important question is raised, however: can this document—and the effectiveness of our federal government—survive the slugfest that is the 2016 election?

The evidence that it can is lacking. Congress refuses to fill an open seat on the Supreme Court and Senators like Ted Cruz have floated the idea that the seat will continue to be vacant if Hillary Clinton wins on Tuesday. Crucial legislation—to combat debt, reform healthcare, immigration, gun policy, and criminal justice, rebuild infrastructure—never gets passed and if it does, lacks meaningful solutions to structural problems. Suppression of voting rights and Supreme Court decisions to equate money and free speech have combined to, effectively, allow only a privileged few to have a substantial say in policy decisions. And, when voters go to the polls on November 8th, 41% of registered voters and an incredible 73% of Republicans think that this election could be rigged. Almost half of the country feels that an integral, foundational element of American government is no longer legitimate.

The reelection rate for incumbents in Congress hovers around 80%-90%–the same body that has an overall approval rate of 15%. The two major party candidates for President—one with juvenile temperament who enjoys corrupting the election process and the other refusing to answer serious questions about their ability to be honest with the American public—are motivating votes not from a place of hope and enthusiasm but from fear of the other candidate. The first candidate’s blatant disregard for the Constitution is problematic and worrying. Overall, Americans remain overwhelmingly apathetic about the political process. Partisanship is the disease but no cure is in sight.

For these reasons, the future looks bleak for American government after 2016. Whoever occupies the Oval Office will find their victory to be Pyrrhic—they will face intense challenges from Congress and will find that four years is not long enough to combat the forces of ISIL or climate change. The race for power among Democrats and Republicans will obscure the race for compromise and results. Tensions and discomfort over rapid social and cultural change will continue to divide urban liberals and rural conservatives. The Constitution, while constructed with incredible capacity to adapt to the times, increasingly appears to be insufficient to deal with the myriad of crises the United States faces.

The hope for change—where citizens can make an unequivocal, productive statement about their aspirations for the United States—must therefore come from down-ballot races. The work affecting the day-to-day lives of citizens most often originates in city and state governments which allow greater access to political engagement and the luxury of focusing on smaller, more menial, but no less crucial tasks. In other words, electing the Commissioner of Agriculture must become as important as electing a U.S. Senator. By no means do I advocate that we completely disregard the races for the President, or Senator, or Representative—they still remain crucial. Nevertheless, the lesson of this election remains that diligent and persistent work in towns, cities, and states to craft and implement meaningful, effective policy is the way forward. A bottom-up, grassroots approach holds the key to the survival of the federal government and Constitution beyond the drama of Tuesday.

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