In the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith is appointed to fill a U.S. Senate seat. Upon arriving in Washington, D.C. he is starstruck by the grandeur and glory of the national monuments and historical documents. Then the reality of corruption and politics smacks him in the face in a stark contrast to the values embodied by the national monuments and history of our nation’s capitol.
This week my family and I have been visiting family and vacationing in Washington, D.C. for spring break. Like Mr. Smith, it’s hard for me not to get a little starstruck by the history and grandeur of the capitol. We toured all the national monuments, visited the various Smithsonian museums, and took an afternoon tour of the Capitol Building, even sitting in a few minutes of both the House and Senate proceedings. During our tour, I was on full “political geek” mode, getting excited when I was able to spot senators such as Patrick Leahy, Carl Levin, Arlen Specter, Harry Reid, Rand Paul, and Jim Webb roaming around. As someone who has chosen a career studying American politics, I enjoyed this all very much.
However, it also struck me as an unpleasant contrast whenever I remembered all the things I teach to my students about polarization and partisanship in the halls of Congress as well as the American public. To me, there is certainly a very real disconnect between the ideals embodied in Washington’s history and heritage and what we see our lawmakers say and do in the news every day.
But then, I don’t despair too much. In a lot of ways, our government is working just as the Founders intended it to: making it a long and laborious process to pass any piece of legislation. It was designed to slow things down and make it difficult to reach a consensus. Madison wrote that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”, in other words, that our goals must be set at cross-ways with each other to keep them in check. That way only the best and most necessary laws would be enacted.