July 5, 2016

Warburg: Find the future in our past

All three branches of our national government are malfunctioning. Little wonder the majority of young voters forswear both major political parties. As we celebrate independence, it is past time for a serious national conversation. What is the diagnosis and where is the cure?

Nonpartisan analysts see the dysfunction. Congress ducks accountability for military deployments, hobbles the Supreme Court, and refuses to enact consensus measures to help police keep assault weapons from terrorists.

An accomplished GOP field has succumbed to a misogynist huckster: Donald Trump, a faux conservative devoid of serious policy proposals. Democrats such as Sen. Bernie Sanders offer unrealistic proposals while echoing voters’ fears: fear of globalization and trade, fear of big business and corrupt government, fear of the future.

The Democratic nominee flouts basic rules. Hillary Clinton mishandled classified communications, banked lucrative speaking fees from Wall Street executives and saw donations from foreign interests she engaged at State steered to the family foundation. Democrats’ House floor demonstrations set lamentable precedents, as do President Barack Obama’s over-reaching executive orders.

Critical issues like global warming, immigration, campaign finance, criminal justice reform and infrastructure investment go unresolved. Our national capital now features a subway system in shambles, with gateway airports that offer Third World inefficiencies. As Brexit tanks global markets and European allies unravel — and revanchist dictatorships in Russia and China go on the march — Americans need to demand better.

In dark times, Americans should take courage from our Founders, brave experimenters all. They were the antithesis of strict constructionists, after revolting against king and country. Within a decade, they scrapped the weak Articles of Confederation, adopted a bold Constitution, and then amended it 10 times before the ink was dry. Their enduring commitment to civil compromise and relentless civic engagement offers instruction to patriots of all political persuasions.

Where can citizens turn for effective consensus governance? Herewith a few suggestions:

Think globally, act locally. Mayors and governors are highly accountable, rarely engaging in such partisan food fights. If the garbage goes uncollected, they are tossed from office. Local officials are already investing in transportation and climate change adaptation, energized by nonpartisan millennials now flocking to American cities where they advance creative solutions. It is from our cities and states we will likely find our next generation of leaders.

Reward moderates and reject demagogues. The GOP rarely wins national campaigns led by its most extreme voices. This year’s debacle provides opportunities to reinvent the party. Democrats have embraced a cautious political veteran. Yet, they, too, must soon bring forward a new generation of policymakers from purple states and cities. Open primaries, an end to obscene gerrymandering and campaign finance reform can help elevate less partisan thinkers.

Exalt civic engagement. There is a striking divide in young voters today. Amidst record turnout, most young Brits opposed the nativist Brexit. Young Americans abhor the stale Fox-MSNBC/ Bush-Clinton debates, appropriately disdained as “so last century.” Policy gridlock can energize millennials to help clean house. Tea party patriots and Bernie’s precinct workers alike advance sound American traditions of civic engagement.

Hold the media accountable and stop bad-mouthing the nation. Amidst all the infotainment in our dying national newspapers and burgeoning online sites, there is also rich discussion of priorities for the future policy agenda. The American people usually get it right in the end, going for substance over salesmanship. And they know that, despite the fear-mongering on cable news and from primary candidates, our economy continues to grow and our military is second to none. It remains a great time to be born American.

Franklin Roosevelt implored Americans to look beyond our fears. Even bitter partisan opponents like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams buried the hatchet; they shared ideas thoughtfully until the day they both died. That was, we should recall, on July 4.

On that day of justifiable national pride, and on every day, let our Founders’ unity of purpose, and their determination to overcome partisan divides, offer inspiration as we contemplate our civic responsibilities.


Gerald Warburg teaches classes on national security policy and legislative strategy at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

In This Article

Professor of Practice of Public Policy
Email Address
Phone Number
Twitter Username
Office Location/Room Number
Garrett 102