Do Electronic Communications Contribute to Political Gridlock?

Gallup released today a poll showing that 65% of Americans say the U.S. Senate should have passed the measure on April 17 that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases. The poll also showed that only 29% agree with the Senate’s failure to pass the measure. How do background checks for gun purchases get killed in the Senate when two thirds of Americans want them?

A close friend observed that widespread, instant awareness which electronic communications foster may contribute to Congressional gridlock. Her theory goes something like this.

Politicians used to posture to their supporters in public, then go into “smoke-filled back rooms” – where compromises were reached in private – and do what they thought was right. Today, the harsh and constant glare of media attention makes that more difficult. A reporter, blogger, or special interest group is always waiting somewhere with a camera, ready to remind the world that “during your campaign, you said…”

I buy her theory and would add to it by saying:

  • Media proliferation and competition has intensified the spotlight that makes compromise difficult.
  • Special interest groups have changed the media landscape. They now have the power to reach wide audiences through self-published web sites whose authorship may be disguised.
    • They intensify that spotlight even more because they are unfettered by the need for balance, they often blur the distinction between reportage and advocacy.
    • As advocates, they can and often do paint issues as black and white rather than recognize shades of gray.
    • When advocates have a horse in the race, they tend to see compromise as a loss rather than a partial win.
  • Instant awareness can instantly mobilize opposition forces against any compromise on the table.

Of course, cultural and philosophical factors also exist that contribute to Congress’ inability to reach compromise on important issues. Nevertheless, I am stunned that our political leaders can’t even agree on something that two out of three voters want.

The background check issue is just symptomatic of a bigger issue facing Congress – gridlock. Another Gallup poll shows that only 15% of Americans approve of the job congress is doing. This approval rating is less than half the average for the last four decades – 33 percent.

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