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Forum explores implications of gridlock

Carolyn Hutyra | Sunday, November 18, 2012

As part of the 2012 Notre Dame Law Review Symposium, former Maine Representative Thomas Allen delivered the keynote address entitled, “The American Congress: Legal Implications of Gridlock” on Nov. 16 in the Eck Hall of Law.

The lecture, part of the yearlong Forum titled “A More Perfect Union: The Future of America’s Democracy”, focused on the current state of U.S. politics with its unwavering convictions and lack of compromise.

“We’re asking here at Notre Dame whether our political system has the capacity to deal with the threats and the opportunities that our country faces,” Law School dean Nell Jessup Newton said. “How can we promote productive discourse, innovative thinking, and effective action?”

Allen sought to answer this question by providing his perspective of Congress and the roles of Democrats and Republicans within public office.

“What I’ve been trying to do is figure out what it is that is separating the parties,” Allen said.

He discussed the constant campaigning, the efforts toward redistricting and the parties, which he said are now selecting their voters instead of having voters select them. Allen said people’s ideas and values are bundled into worldviews, and the former is grounded in individualism and the latter in community.

Allen said partisanship and discourse between the two parties is an issue.

“What I experienced here was this tremendous conflict in the way we viewed each other and that was a problem,” he said. “Congress today is deeply divided because to each side the opinions of the other make no sense.”

Allen said this conflict is less about the role of government than it is about the enduring tension in American politics and culture between individualism and community.

“[They] are two parts of the American psyche, part of our culture, part of our politics, and what has happened for a variety of reasons is that our American psyche has been split down the middle and these two parts of who we are are at war with each other,” he said.

Individualism and community should not be separated, Allen said, and he hopes Congress can find a way to work back to the system of the 1970s.

“Republicans and Democrats differed but could collaborate on those issues which simply couldn’t be dealt with through any other way but with some sort of government action,” he said.

Allen said interest group politics is still a present-day factor, but now it is fueled by unprecedented amounts of campaign money. It is overlaid and often dominated by what he referred to as worldview politics, a class of values much deeper than the competition among interest groups in Washington.

“Interest group politics is now often overwhelmed by world view politics, a widening hardening conflict between those who believe the mission of government is to enhance the common good and those who believe that government inevitably infringes on personal liberty,” Allen said.

This conflict causes the political system to get stuck, he said. He highlighted terms such as ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional and politically strategic as aspects of the political system that cause difficulty in allowing majorities to work their will.

“This is compounded by the asymmetric polarization of the parties,” Allen said.

With a seemingly constant gridlock between the political parties in office, Allen said a smoothly functioning governmental system appears unlikely.