Flint, Michigan: The Shame of American Politics

The Flint, Michigan water tragedy is a sad and shameful reflection of American politics. It is also the specter of things to come. The Flint tragedy, as other disasters overseen by the U.S. Congress, has brought out into the open, once again, the hypocrisy of partisanship and the insensitivity and dishonesty it promotes.

The mere existence of political parties in a democracy is an indication that human beings do not think alike and often are bound by different values. Thus, factionalism and self-interest partisanship led initially to the creation of organized political groups in the United States.  Although the existence of political parties is not explicitly recognized in the US Constitution, a democracy cannot possibly remain viable if freedom of thought, speech, assembly, and association is not allowed to survive and thrive.

The primary function of political parties is to assist in electing those who would govern us. The logic of their mission tells us that to be successful political parties must become highly partisan and one-sided; they must resort to zero-sum outcomes that seek to exploit their accomplishments and hide their failures while blaming the opposition for any fiasco that comes along. Ironically, this is the basic flaw of partisanship; success brings out its ugly face, hypocrisy and dishonesty, both of which contribute to erode the political legitimacy the system requires to remain vibrantly viable.

The Flint, Michigan tragedy is a most prominent indication of what ails American politics.

There are two main actors in the crisis, a Republican governor under whose supervision and authority lead contamination of drinking water occurred, thus creating a public health hazard of incalculable proportions, and a Democratic appointee who heads the Environmental Protection Agency that failed in its primary responsibility of overseeing the quality of drinkable water. Each one accepted responsibility for their misdeeds, the former for not being at the helm when the crisis began to unfold and for disregarding early warnings, the latter for not providing the necessary guidance that would have mitigated the human consequences of the error.

Now comes the political circus.

Congressional oversight is one the most significant functions of the legislature along with proposing legislation. This activity provides transparency to the public by airing issues that are vital to the security and well-being of the citizens. In theory Congress acts as the national ombudsman or protector of the interests of the public at large. Nonetheless, what we witnessed at the House of Representatives’ Oversight & Government Reform Committee session dealing with the Flint crisis was nothing short of disgraceful: self-righteous Republicans dressing down the Democratic appointee and asking for her resignation while remaining lenient toward their Republican colleague, and self-righteous Democrats berating the Republican governor, also asking for his resignation, but treading softly when addressing the Democratic appointee. In other words, each party was protecting its own while sanctimoniously attacking the opposition.

The behavior of elected officials on both sides was unabashedly biased and hypocritical, and lacked partisan accountability. A more honorable and sincere behavior, one that would have enhanced the trust of the US Congress in the eyes of the people would have been for democrats to hold their own accountable and for republicans to do likewise. Yes, I know, it seldom happens, perhaps why Congress is held in such low regard.

Such dysfunctional values have been poisoning the political process for so long that we have come to regard the way things are as the way they ought to be. In the end, the electorate, in its understandable ignorance of the political process, holds those they elect as responsible without realizing that ‘the enemy is us,’ the voters and the non-voters. This vicious cycle holds no promise of being reversed, as politics in the age of the internet has become a spectator sport in which emotions run high and thoughtfulness and intellect run awfully low. Lest we start to think how to reverse this cycle the prospect of more turmoil awaits us.

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