Please don't run for office, Angelina Jolie

Out of America: The actress has hinted her future may lie in Washington, but she would surely be depressed by its deeply flawed system
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The Independent Online

Undoubtedly, it was pure coincidence. But in the week of the US midterm elections, Angelina Jolie let it be known that she might be open to a political career. To which the heartfelt advice of every dispassionate observer of the current state of American politics must be: don't.

This is no criticism of Ms Jolie, or a scornful putdown of those who believe conquering Hollywood is automatic qualification for conquering Washington. It has of course been done. But Ronald Reagan won the presidency not on the strength of a few starring roles in the movies, but because he had twice served as Governor of California and because his conservative political credo caught the mood of the country.

The advice is simply a natural reaction after the most barren, depressing elections I've witnessed here in almost a quarter of a century. They were depressing not because they produced a Republican landslide – in fact an army of political freaks like Sarah Palin is not about to descend on Washington. This time, the party ran a much more effective get-out-the-vote drive, and picked its candidates carefully. There were no crazies, no big gaffes.

The truth is, the Democrats didn't deserve to win. Republicans may have had no policy other than to link their opponents with a deeply unpopular President Obama. But Democrats had virtually nothing to say either. They simply ran from Mr Obama, not bothering to defend his controversial but increasingly successful healthcare reforms, or his impressive economic record since taking office just after the Great Crash of 2008: tumbling deficits, decent growth and growing employment and Wall Street at an all-time high.

In 2014, more money – $4bn (£2.52bn) – was spent than on any midterms in history, swollen by Supreme Court rulings allowing virtually unlimited corporate and individual political contributions. Yet this vast outlay bought an election in which only 37 per cent of voters bothered to turn out – the lowest in any midterms since 1942, when a war was going on.

That abysmal figure reflected many things, including shameful vote suppression measures by Republican-controlled state legislatures, aimed at making it harder for minorities and the poor (who tend to support Democrats) to cast ballots.

Above all though, it was testament to Americans' disgust with Washington and all its works, in particular the ideological rigidity and refusal to compromise (primarily on the part of Republicans, but of which Democrats are also guilty) that has made this 113th Congress that ends in January about the least productive in history. And if the system is broken, why vote to perpetuate it?

Everyone knows what's wrong: above all, that of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, barely one in 10 is competitive. That stems partly from gerrymandering of Congressional district whereby, in practice, parties choose their voters rather than the other way round. Thus the greatest threat to an incumbent is often not from the other party in the general election but during the primary, at the hands of a more extreme rival from his own. Hence in large measure today's polarisation, which political scientists have found to be greater than at any time since the Civil War, 150 years ago.

Then there's the huge fundraising advantage enjoyed by incumbents. No wonder US politics is described as "the finest system money can buy" – much of that money showered down by lobbyists and special interest groups. No wonder, too, that ordinary people assume the game is rigged in favour of the rich and powerful.

Even to an unpractised eye, the required reforms are no less obvious. First, some form of public funding of elections. Private money will always find a way into politics, but at least you could make the process more difficult and, to some extent at least, level the playing field. Second, extend the Congressional term from two years to four, the norm in most other advanced democracies.

This would reduce the pressure on fundraising, and allow legislators time and space to get to know (and get on with) their colleagues in the other party, and do what they're supposed to in Washington: pass laws. The chances of anything such happening? Zero.

But if you're fed up at the sight of the US dispensing advice to the rest of the world about democracy, while its own is in such a shambles, do not lose hope. America is a vast, varied and eternally creative place. Washington politics may be near a dead end. Elsewhere however, important things are happening.

Take individual states, ever laboratories and testing grounds for change. Back in 1978, California passed Proposition 13 slashing property taxes, a measure often credited with triggering a national "tax revolt" that helped pave the way for Reagan's nationwide victory two years later. This time, Californians approved an initiative cutting jail terms for at least 10,000 prisoners. Four other states boosted the minimum wage. In both cases, sterile debate in Washington DC became concrete action.

Further up the Pacific coast, Washington state voters passed an initiative requiring tighter background checks on gun buyers – something that wouldn't have a hope on Capitol Hill. Republicans are supposed to be anti-environment, yet voters in states from New Jersey to Florida approved more than $13bn of conservation spending via ballot initiatives.

Then there are civic groups and NGOs, even corporations, fighting for, and sometimes securing, changes that would seem impossible at a federal level. And as dysfunction at the centre continues, this pattern will surely strengthen.

Even Ronald Reagan would be horrified by today's Washington. As for Angelina Jolie, she's much better off doing what she's doing now.

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