When he received the 2011 Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center last Thursday night, former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates had some scathing comments about the state of our democracy.
His speech captured little attention outside of Philadelphia. And it’s a shame that it was not more widely reported, because his comments about government dysfunction were remarkable for a high-government official, even a former one.
For a very long time, Gates has had a birds-eye view of American politics. In addition to heading the Pentagon, he led the CIA and served on the White House staffs of four presidents, dating back to the last, Watergate-haunted days of the Nixon Administration . So he knows a political crisis when he sees one.
And in all his years of public service, he said, he has never been more concerned than he is now about the state of American governance. “We are now in uncharted territory when it comes to the dysfunction of our political system,” he said. “It appears that as a result of several polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing this country.”
What made the indictment all the more extroardinary is that it came from the famously button-down Gates, a master of the art of measured judgments.
Gates pointed to three factors to explain the inability of politicians to make the compromises needed to get anything done: highly partisan redistricting that pushes politicians to extreme positions that cater to the base of their parties; “wave elections” that embolden the winners to impose their agenda on the other side by “brute force,” and changes in the composition of the news media that have “fueled the coarsening and dumbing-down of the national political dialogue.”
Those are frequently noted failings of our political system, and you could add others to the list: the role of big money in politics, special-interest lobbying, Senate rules that require a 60-vote super-majority to pass any significant piece of legislation.
The speech struck a nerve. Guests invited to the ceremony gave it rave reviews, which you might expect. Many were there because they admired him. But the most meaningful response to me came from someone watching at home, who left a comment on Constitution Daily.
“I think Dr. Gates was right on the money,” said Peggy Garrity. “This is something I’ve been saying for a year though not as articulately as he did. If only people will listen, and demand that our representatives work together for the future of our country, we can come out of this.”
For my money, that put just the right coda on Gates’ address. The Constitution Gates has sworn to support and defend seven times in his long and illustrious career is designed to give us only the government we deserve.
After all, who is responsible for the outcome of the “wave” elections about which he spoke? And who consumes the “dumbed down” political dialogue propagated by a changing media?
In what was the most searing passage of his speech, Gates said: “Those who think they alone have the right answers, who demonize those who think differently, and who refuse to listen and take other points of view into account – these leaders are a danger to the American people and to our future.” But they are a danger only if we elect them.
Gates in his remarkable address pointed a prophet’s accusing finger. And Garrity had the wisdom to realize that, in the end, it points at all of us.
Steve Frank is the editor of Constitution Daily.