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Dysfunctional democracy on display

Published on -10/17/2013, 10:18 AM

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"While we've been busy promoting democracy abroad our own has kind of gone off the rails at home." -- Thomas Pickering, retired U.S. diplomat

Individuals channel surfing late at night a couple months ago might have come across an interview with Thomas Pickering on PBS in which he uttered the above statement. His comments came back to me this past week while watching our federal government sit paralyzed with dysfunction.

Pickering has the experience and perspective to offer insightful commentary on the subject. During a long and distinguished career in the Foreign Service, he served as U.S. ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, Jordan and the United Nations. In addition to his native English, he speaks fluent French, Spanish and Swahili, and is proficient in Arabic, Hebrew and Russian.

In short, he has seen quite a bit of the rest of the world and has in-depth knowledge of how various peoples try to govern themselves around the globe.

During most of the interview, he offered his thoughts on foreign policy -- issues ranging from the Arab Spring to Syria and China. But for the final moments, the interviewer brought him back home and asked a few questions regarding domestic policy. Pickering offered a few general comments before zeroing in on the partisan polarization that grips Congress, frequently grinding the business of governing to a halt.

A couple months later, the problem to which he alluded is on display for all to see. Clearly the U.S. House is no longer the part of our government that reflects the popular will. Public opinion surveys at the beginning of this month consistently showed that more than 70 percent of those polled opposed linking the Affordable Care Act to keeping the government open or to raising the debt ceiling. Even majorities of those opposed to the new health care law also opposed efforts to hold the government hostage to demands to defund it. Yet here we are, in a place where few wanted to be.

Our partisan polarization has real consequences in the international sphere as well as fostering an attitude of cynicism among our own citizens.

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, an international political consulting firm, wrote this past week that "American dysfunction at home is undermining our credibility abroad."

He singled out the fact that President Barack Obama had to cancel a trip to an Asian summit to deal with the government crisis at home, effectively ceding the leadership position at the gathering to the ascendant Chinese. The group photo of leaders taken at the summit showed Chinese President Xi Jinping front and center with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (not a head of state) in the back row.

So where do we start to get our government functioning again? Never mind whether one likes/dislikes President Obama or Speaker John Boehner. How do we address the systemic problems that lead to this inability to deal with critical issues facing us?

Pickering suggests a starting place -- undoing the gerrymandering of congressional districts. Due to extreme gerrymandering the majority of congressional races nowadays are decided in primaries. Politicians respond by running towards the extremes. With so few members of the "people's house" coming from competitive districts (only 19 Republican congressmen, for example, come from districts won by Obama in 2012), there is little reason to compromise.

Competitive congressional districts would give members more incentive to compromise and appeal toward the political center where most of the populace lies.

We can only hope that the current crisis will give added impetus to efforts to "fix" flaws in our democratic system. The wisdom of retired public servants like Thomas Pickering can guide our efforts and help channel our anger and frustration in a positive direction.

Hopefully, our current quagmire will give impetus to movements to refine and perfect our country's great experiment with democracy.

Alan Jilka is a businessman and former mayor of Salina.

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