The United States government is in disarray, three of Wyoming’s most prominent political minds warned in a forum last week at Casper College, saying the collision of money in politics, mass and partisan media, and a loss of civic engagement has thrown the government into unprecedented levels of dysfunction over the past several decades.
Sponsored by the Casper College Department of Political Science and its department of History and International Studies, the lecture – entitled “Stay in Your Lane, Bro!” – brought together several of Wyoming’s most well-respected names across the three branches of government to speak on the function of each, while addressing how those roles fit within today’s modern political landscape.
In speeches to introduce the forum, former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, former U.S. Senator Al Simpson, and U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson each looked over their shares of the group’s collective century of public service, remembering long-forgotten legislative battles, bipartisan deal-making, confirmation hearings and the weight of responsibility each role had borne, recalling the way things used to be, how they functioned and how well they functioned.
The conditions today’s government operates under, however, are almost unrecognizable.
“Hatred has entered the scene like never before in our history,” said Simpson. “Now, the ‘hatred’ in America is beyond belief. You never saw that before.”
A different world
For all their experience, each of the panelists said few memories of their time in public service resemble the realities of government today.
The judiciary today, said Johnson, has gone from the least-powerful branch of government to its most powerful, defining American life in ways that are sweeping, dramatic and increasingly cemented by ideologically-driven appointments that have profound influence on issues from elections to people’s civil rights.
Beginning with the highly contentious confirmation hearing of the conservative judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987 (his confirmation was denied) to the hearings of recent Supreme Court Justices like Brett Kavanaugh – who was dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct throughout his confirmation process – the very act of nominating and confirming judges has devolved from a vetting of astute and capable jurists into a partisan spectacle, with the senators responsible for vetting them increasingly compelled by ideology and an overriding adherence to political tribalism.
“The effect of that power has been felt. It’s been seen by you on your television, played out,” said Johnson. “Because the selection of a justice has become so consequential for both sides of polarized society, that it almost cannot be achieved, and increases the separation that exists in our society. And I suspect that will all end in tears, as people’s lives, reputations, work, is destroyed along with whatever family life they might have.”
Meanwhile, today’s legislative branch, said Simpson, is gridlocked – so busy raising money and appealing to their bases to get re-elected that they’ve foregone their principal duty as a legislator: legislating.
The conditions that have enabled this are many, Simpson said, but have fermented as politicians have pledged increasing loyalties to corporate money spurred by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and an increasingly polarized electorate, driven apart by partisan media and a sheer lack of understanding on how the government actually works. With the legislative branch rendered immobile, the modern executive branch has been given free rein to exploit the power vacuums the legislative branch has chosen to abdicate.
“That’s going to go on, and the line is crossed every day now,” said Simpson. “The real one that would cause a real rupture is if the U.S. House – the origin of all revenue – rejects a budget requirement and the president goes around that on an appropriation. You got real trouble in River City. It’s going to get worse, and that’ll be cured by the ballot box and nothing else.”
A slackening of tensions between branches
While the nation’s founding fathers always intended for a natural tension to exist between the three branches – the concept of “checks and balances” that comes from three equal entities – recent shifts in society and trends in the nation’s politics have left that system vulnerable for exploitation, something made increasingly clear by presidents who have increasingly challenged those traditional roles.
“There will be some comments made tonight that, if truthful, will appear partisan,” Sullivan told the audience. “But no, it’s not. There was vagueness left in the Constitution to each of the branches, intentionally designed to create conflict so as to not establish unnecessary or pernicious power in one branch. But as we’ve developed in recent times, the government generally isn’t functioning as intended, leaving vacuums in other places.”
The theories behind the destabilization of the American system of democracy are complex, explained Sullivan, spurred on by societal and policy changes and three branches of government that – because of these shifts – have relinquished power to a degree never before seen in American history. While neither President Donald Trump nor his predecessor, Barack Obama, have issued the most executive orders among American presidents, Sullivan said the intent and purpose of those orders have increasingly come in the face of a gridlocked legislative branch that, because of money and ideology, has consistently failed to act.
“It’s really our fault, because the legislative system can only make a decision that is within their tribal authority,” he said. “As a result, they don’t really get decisions.”
“I think the system is deeply broken,” he added.
Is there hope left?
While the evening’s discussion had an undeniable bleakness to it, the three men maintained that while solutions seemed ambitious in the face of overwhelming challenges, those solutions were still achievable.
Much of the answer, Simpson said, lies within one’s self, and an individual’s own initiative to spur change in a dysfunctional system. Now 87 years old, the Republican’s former whip in the Senate – a position he held for a decade – recalled his first foray into politics when he was just 24, taking over as a precinct committee chairman of District 25-1 in his hometown of Cody on the urging of his wife, Ann, after a bill in the legislature at the time had troubled him.
“It was a ghastly duty,” said Simpson. “During the Johnson-Goldwater race, Ann and I knocked on all the doors and they said ‘we love your guy Goldwater, he’s just terrific,’ and then 72 percent of the people in our precinct voted for Johnson.”
That experience, Simpson said, turned him into “a master of lost causes,” including pushing back at the time against members of his party – including one old woman at the precinct meetings – who opposed same-sex marriage.
The only reason that conversation happened, however, was because he was there to have that discussion with them – helped by a couple of friends, $1,500 in a political action committee, and a desire to “stick it” to the establishment.
“If you don’t like what’s going on, go where they went,” said Simpson. “If you don’t like what’s happening in your precinct or county – where some cult took over to tell you how to live and conduct your life – just say you’re going to run for precinct committeeman or committeewoman.”
“If you want to sit around, have gas, ulcers, be my guest,” he added. “If you really want to make a difference, don’t forget about the people who worked their way into the wormwood while you weren’t paying attention at all.”
While action is important, Johnson and Sullivan both said that Americans’ lack of understanding of the system, as well as of each other’s perspectives, was another factor in the system’s decline, and that increased student engagement, an emphasis on civics, and forums like those held on Tuesday night could help get that conversation started.
“We can’t forget the values that brought this country together,” he said.