The current immigration hissy fit reminds me of two seventh-grade boys arguing, red-faced, nose-to-nose over some dispute on a ball field. I taught seventh-graders once. Their level of maturity was actually greater than what we are seeing in the Halls of Congress. Similar to kids on a ball field, politicians on both sides are taking a short view, arguing about the immediate moment and failing to look way down the road. This petty gridlock of the past decade threatens to become perpetual gridlock unless we make a major change in our system or our representatives.
No one is looking at any possible long-term actions that could be taken. One might be to set a long-term target: perhaps in 50 years, all individuals could cross borders with virtually no restrictions, similar to the European Union. If a country started from allowing none, entry level would increase two percent a year until at the end of the 50 years there was total free flow. Visa policies and income-leveling would allow for reasoned and gradual adjustment in citizenship requirements. This looks far down the road, far beyond the time our politicians are in office.
Another advancement the U.S. will never have is high-speed electric trains. France, China and Japan long ago took the long view and made the commitment to build a successful system that is paying back over 30 years. We are unwilling to look beyond a few year’s investment return, just as our politicians cannot look beyond the next election cycle.
The distinguished conservative diplomat George Kennan—who kept the Cold War from becoming a hot war—described the problem bluntly. Under our two-party system and short election cycles, politicians were forced into “vulgarity.” By this he meant that more-and-more, elected officials had to do what appealed to the masses in order to be re-elected.
Kennan clearly saw that the United States was a republic, not a pure democracy. Many great acts, such as Eisenhower’s interstate system, were funded and built by votes of intelligent representatives who could take that long view when their constituencies could not. Some southern senators voted for the Civil Rights Act even though they knew the majority of their citizens opposed it. With fewer media networks and news cycles, they could survive. Now politicians focus on garnering votes with various constituencies rather than providing long-term legislation.
Every winning party declares that “the people have spoken” after every election. But the majority of people did not speak at all—they stayed away from the polls. America has an abysmal election turnout. No party can ever claim to speak for the majority. At best, they are a majority of the minority.
But anyone who thinks that everyone who voted Republican is of one mind ignores the major split between Tea Party and moderate Republicans. And the same can be said between the liberal wing and moderates of the Democrat Party.
With another 2.5 billion people on earth by 2050, we cannot live and consume resources at our current rate. Our policies on food supply, banking, travel, housing, and immigration will have to be altered dramatically and intelligently.
George Kennan advocated for professionalism in politics. We need statesmen of proven ability and judgement who can avoid the whims and pressures of public opinion and the “vulgar” requirements of seeking and maintaining elected office. Kennan felt that liberty “possessed a value only in a well-ordered society. Otherwise, it degenerated into license.”
Yes, our election cycle is too short to solve long-term problems. And our two-party system reduces every complex problem into simple-minded polarized alternatives.
Kennan realized that if he publicly discussed these shortcomings of our democratic system during the Cold War, he would be charged with supporting tyranny. With gridlock now the order of the day, and no Cold War afoot, it is perhaps time to question the two-party system and begin sending representatives into government who take the long view, and worry less about being re-elected.