Editorial: Let’s reform our political system

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Raise your hand if you’ve been disturbed and/or disgusted in the past week.

I see those hands.

If you haven’t been disturbed and/or disgusted in the past week, meditate on one word: Washington.

knox newEditor Marv KnoxThere, now, I see a sea of hands.

Members of Congress descended to the nadir of their collective abysmal existence when they refused to pass a federal budget before the government’s fiscal year began Oct. 1. Republicans want to defund the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and the Democrats want to keep it funded. Since Republicans control the House and Democrats rule the Senate, they stalemated.

What we’ve got here is a crisis of leadership.

It’s troubling on so many levels. First, our political system is so broken, millions of Americans are represented by unrepresentative extremists. Second, under pressure, these so-called leaders behave like children. Third, making this list is depressing. I’m going to move on, but you may add many illustrations yourself.

Behaving like children

For now, let’s go back to point No. 2: Our so-called leaders behave like children. Actually, that statement libels children. Sorry, kids.

Two mornings after the government shutdown, a TV program tested that theme with a group of children. A news anchor talked about the government shutdown with fourth graders from a Brooklyn elementary school.

The children put the politicians to shame. They instinctively talked about compromise, sharing, cooperation, fairness and compassion.

Why does prepubescent wisdom trump conventional political wisdom? Prepubescent wisdom is straightforward and logical, while political wisdom is distorted by power, money and a corrupt configuration that rewards extremism.

This corruption particularly influences the House of Representatives and state legislatures, but a form of it also reaches the U.S. Senate.

Gerrymandered districts

Gerrymandered legislative districts provide pervasive and poisonous political influence. Most U.S. representatives and state legislators hold “safe” seats. Their districts have been drawn to encase strongly Republican or solidly Democratic voting majorities. The party in power when districts are drawn crafts them to maintain control. But minority politicians aid and abet. Their reward is a safe seat, even though their acquiescence means their party doesn’t have a chance to gain a majority or balance the political power.

When a politician runs in a safe district, the only worry is winning the primary. If a politician can defeat all primary challengers from her/his own party, the general election is a shoo-in. That means the real race takes place in the primary, where party extremists dominate.

Consequently, if an officeholder does not vote the will of the zealous party leadership, she or he will be “primaried”—face an even more extreme candidate in the next primary. So, at general elections, voters rarely see an opportunity to elect a statesperson who will apply the wisdom of fourth-graders, seeking compromise, sharing, cooperation, fairness and compassion.

Money compounds the problem

Beyond this, money compounds corruption. Despite cosmetic appearances to the contrary, campaign cash flows unfettered into the coffers of incumbent candidates. Controls and safeguards? Laughable. And so money corrodes and corrupts.

You may be wondering: What’s this got to do with faith? Why should this be a topic of conversation in a Christian publication?

Christians have a mandate—read Luke 4, Matthew 25 and Amos, for starters—to care for the common good, to look after the weak and less fortunate, and to seek and pursue justice. Any Christian who votes solely according to personal interest violates the gospel.

Christians must repair our broken political system. If dysfunction in Washington and our state capitols is to be healed, we must get the process started. Here are initial steps:

Demand balanced, truly representational legislative districts.

They should be fair and geographically contiguous. The more open, tight and closely contested the general elections, the better. Candidates will realize they must represent all the people, not just party elite, to remain in office. This will supply incentive for compromise.

Open and improve the primary system.

Fair districts will provide the greatest impetus for open primaries. However, do not underestimate powerful forces’ ability to cheat the system. We must remain vigilant to thwart seemingly innocuous bills and regulations that would corrupt primaries.

Reform campaign finance laws.

Yes, the Supreme Court has weighed in and shoved us toward the current system. But Congress can enact laws that pass constitutional muster while also providing for fairness. No one who has studied American history can believe the Founding Fathers would be proud of where we are today.

Consider term limits.

Imagine a political system where no one is running for re-election. How much more willingly would lawmakers and government executives seek the common good if they no longer considered the self-interest of re-election?

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Care to comment? Send an email to our interim opinion editor, Blake Atwood. Maximum length for publication is 250 words.