Political Reform Politics & Diplomacy United States and Canada
Atlantic Council Strategy Paper Series December 11, 2017

Whither America

By John Raidt

The United States faces threats from outside its borders, but also from within. While domestic issues including healthcare, immigration, and tax reform occupy the media, a more sinister threat exists underfoot. The political system that once created a strong, prosperous, and united nation now sows division. Many of the country’s public institutions, most notably Congress, seem increasingly inept and dangerously dysfunctional. Permanent campaign mode is distracting the country’s institutions from their responsibilities, alienating the public from civic processes, and leaving the country vulnerable to foreign interference.

 The mechanics of the broken US political engine are complex, but relatively easy to depict. Its fuel is money; money flows to its various components the way gasoline drives pistons in a cylinder. At the axis is a mercenary election industry. Larger than the two political parties, their officeholders, and candidates, the election cartel encompasses an expanding corps of political, campaign, and special-interest functionaries on both sides of the aisle, whose livelihoods are co-invested in the business model of perpetual conflict centered on money and power. The partisan divide is dangerously codependent; each side needs the other, demonizing it to energize its “base” and raise money.

This report, written by John Raidt, unpacks how the fuel—money—drives the cartel’s machinations as it interacts with and exploits amplifying forces—legal, structural, media, technological, and social. Some of these forces are devised by the election industry to advance its interests, while others are circumstances of modern life. Combined, they form a powerful, and accelerating, drivetrain of political division and dysfunction. The most disturbing aspect of this engine of division and dysfunction is what it discards as mere waste products: the very virtues necessary to sustain healthy and vibrant democracy. Addressing this issue requires urgent and decisive reform of politics and government. But, as citizens, it requires a hard look at ourselves.


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