American politics is suffering acutely from the gridlock of entrenched officeholders and election financing controlled by special interests. Over 300 of the 435 congressional districts almost never change partisan hands. Most congressmen have safely gerrymandered districts, receive the bulk of their financial support from one or a few sources, and are reliable legislative supporters of those sources. Their main additional activities are to add “earmarks” favoring their own districts to legislation in exchange for their support of other legislators’ bills. It is a log-rolling and back-scratching exercise that has nothing to do with the Periclean exercise in disinterested law-giving envisioned by the authors of the Constitution. In a 2008 campaign that was otherwise a geriatric blunderbuss, John McCain at least raised the issue of the impropriety of these methods (to the bemused dismissiveness of the winning candidate).
The role of money is greater in U.S. politics than it is in that of any other advanced country, just as the U.S. is in other respects the most commercialized of all advanced countries. Campaign-finance reform has been an exercise in futile and self-serving hypocrisy. Organized labor gave the Democrats $400 million in the year leading up to the 2008 election. Labor has already received an impressive return on its money, although its most cherished goal — the abolition of the secret ballot in union elections and the restoration of thuggish self-perpetuation of labor leadership (card-check) — has foundered on the shoals of public concern, which, beyond a certain point, overwhelms the loyalties of those legislators in whose fidelity supporters have invested.
The federal government intervened to gut the rights of the General Motors and Chrysler bondholders, and delivered those companies into the hands of the United Auto Workers, one of the most retrograde and Luddite unions in America — and the chief author, even beyond decades of incompetent management, of the demise of those companies. President Obama, in complete consistency with his effort to nationalize health care to reduce its costs, secured $50,000 of union health and pension benefits per manufactured vehicle by crushing the shareholders and robbing the other supposedly secured stakeholders.
The American trial-lawyers’ association contributed $47 million to the Obama campaign, which has proved sufficient to ensure that malpractice awards are not capped and that health plans continue to be loaded with expensive preventive tests as legal defensive moves. This has sunk any possibility of reducing the $3,000 additional per capita health-care costs in the U.S. (Compare them with those in other advanced countries. The U.S.: over $7,000. Canada, Australia, the U.K., France, Germany, and Japan: over $4,000.)
The U.S. has become a nation of what were called “rotten boroughs” in Britain before the passage of the First Reform Act in 1832 (which broadened the electorate and sensibly redistricted constituencies). These were legislative districts that were won as soon as the nomination process was complete. From post-Reconstruction times to the 1970s, the Democrats had almost all the congressional representation in the South, and so usually controlled Congress; and, through the seniority system, most committee chairmen were Southerners, somewhat mitigating the impact of the Northern victory in the Civil War.
Now, control seesaws between the parties, but the seniority system is still sclerotic, though not regionally dominated. Elections and the preferments of tangibly patronized members of Congress have become appallingly expensive, and the system is profoundly corrupt and taints many of its chief practitioners. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has carved in a special reward of federal health-care money for his state of Nevada, and Democratic Senate whip Dick Durbin has, in the interests of the commodity-exchange preeminence of his home city of Chicago, pulled the teeth out of bills purporting to crack down on commodity speculators. Congress’s most powerful person in matters of public finance, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charlie Rangel, has apparently filed fraudulent tax returns for years and has even ripped off the New York City rent-control regime. The House Ethics Committee, not an organization martyred to the work ethic, has been “looking into” this for many months.
The bold championship of term limits in the Dole-Gingrich revolution of 1994 has vanished. Those men retired voluntarily from Congress, but few other members of the congressional leadership have. The presidency alone has term limits in this system, but on the only occasion when a president sought a third term, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, all civilization depended on his success, as the champion of “all aid short of war” for Britain and Canada against Nazi Germany. Without him, those countries could not have stayed in the war until the U.S. joined it after Pearl Harbor.
Yet almost the only dignified retirements of major democratic leaders since World War II have been those of term-limited U.S. presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. In that time, great leaders of other democracies, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher, have all, after eleven to fourteen years in their countries’ highest offices, been plunged inelegantly into honored retirement.