Blaming Montesquieu

By Zachary Keller

While our group has experienced a lot of cool things on this trip, we’ve also been learning a lot through the academic seminars we have attended as part of The Washington Center’s curriculum. One of the more interesting topics we have discussed the past few days is the current polarization of political parties in Congress.  According to Bill Dauster, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy for Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the value gap between Republicans and Democrats is growing. On the issue of social security alone, the U.S. Senate now has 41 points of difference compared to only 23 points of difference in 1987. 

So how did we get to this point?

Bill Dauster speaking during an academic seminar at the Washington Center

Bill Dauster speaking during an academic seminar at the Washington Center. (Photo by Zachary Keller)

Dauster opened his address by saying “I suppose I can blame Montesquieu”. He explained that our government is set up the way it is because our Founding Fathers were greatly influenced by Montesquieu’s writings. They divided the government into separate branches and developed a series of checks and balances to prevent a congregation of power within one office. This means change could only occur if other branches approved. Robert Sherman’s Great Compromise, which divided Congress into the House of Representatives and the Senate, further separated the power of the legislative branch. Therefore, the government we have today is designed to move slowly and that may explain our current political gridlock.

There were three other reasons cited for our current polarization:

  1. David Welna and Ken Walsh mentioned how gerrymandering was the driving force behind the polarization of Congress.
  2. Other speakers stated that the increased use of the filibuster in the Senate was the cause for gridlock since it blocks legislation from being passed.
  3. Even the media and news agencies were included as causes for polarization because the variety of places that people get their news from (press, news broadcast, radio, blogs, social media, etc.) prevents them from having the “same basis of fact” in forming policy.

These reasons show that the issue is multifaceted. Stephen Hess, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that there was “no simple solution” to polarization. Our Founding Fathers could not have predicted the issues we would be facing today. They gave our government a solid foundation with the Constitution and it has existed for over 200 years. Therefore, we need to work within the system to resolve some of the other issues that are contributing to a polarized society.

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