Politics Has Lost Its Power. That’s Why There’s Gridlock

Feb 5, 10 | 8:39 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Everybody’s beating their breasts about Washington gridlock.

Let’s defend gridlock for a moment. The opposite of gridlock was a halcyon time when Lyndon Johnson ran the Senate. But it is worth pointing out that for most of that time and a few decades before, Congress couldn’t pass a civil rights law because the Democratic Party was, itself, on this issue, gridlocked. But pay no attention to that. The larger point is that during Lyndon’s time politicians had a rapport with each other that could help overcome their ideological differences. Indeed, congressional politicians, as a separate professional class, most living far from their constituents, were much more beholden to each other for their future advancement than they were to the voters. You gotta go along to get along, or some such, was the forever-and ever Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn’s fond admonishment.

Given the new, myriad, and instant means of communication, politicians, in our age, have found it necessary to be more responsive to voters than to their colleagues.

This is, at least in pure democratic terms, good. No?

The president is blaming gridlock not on voters but on cable television, from which the most passionate voters get their news and opinions. The president thinks that if the people in Congress would just stop listening to cable television and just go speak to the people, everybody in Congress would get along a lot better.

That is arguable.

For one thing, the people he wants members of Congress to get out and speak to are the consumers of cable television.

For another, politicians themselves, long ago, became, each in their own way, mini media organizations whose central job—the thing their careers depend on—is to get themselves on cable television. The best way each of them—and their various media functionaries—know to accomplish this is to reduce a message to its most simplistic form. The simpler the message the more you get on television delivering it, the more you are committed to it, the harder it is to deviate from. Hence, the gridlock.

Then too, it is important to remind all the self-important people talking about gridlock whose very jobs are premised on the importance of politics and politicians, that politics and politicians are not very important anymore. In Lyndon’s time they were big men, holding great social and economic sway, reporting only to people who held more political power. Now they report to all kinds of people more powerful in many more complex ways. They’ve made hard-to-break commitments to the corporations and industries and billionaires who pay their bills. They have, in the compromise and all-get-along departments, significantly less latitude than they once had.

The point is not that they are on the take, but that real power is somewhere else.

Washington may be gridlocked, but the country isn’t. Change happens, faster than ever before. Just don’t look to Washington.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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