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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is The System Broken?

In a debate in The Economist, Matthew Yglesias says the political system is broken:

American political institutions are in a period of crisis. The source of the crisis is relatively simple. Our institutions work only when leaders can reasonably expect broad bipartisan co-operation, but the emergence of more ideologically rigorous parties makes such co-operation extremely unlikely. The typical response among American political elites is to respond to this impasse by deploring the rise of more rigorous partisanship. But the previous era of lax partisanship was a direct consequence of white supremacist rule in the old one-party south and neither can nor should be restored. The correct solution is to update our institutions to fit the circumstances.


The American people hold the president and his party responsible for the results of governing. This is similar to the process by which the British or Canadian people hold the prime minister and his party responsible for the results of governing. The difference is that American political institutions do not give incumbents the same kind of authority to govern. Instead, the rules of the Senate give even a defeated minority extensive power to block policy change. In an era of weak, poorly sorted parties this was not a big deal. Indeed, it was not even much of a problem insofar as actors in the political system did not properly understand how it worked. But now that congressional minorities have discovered that their best path back to power is blanket obstruction we are faced with a profound problem. It is unrealistic to expect bipartisan agreement on major issues if the benefits of agreement will all flow to the president and his party.

This is a problem. But it is hardly the grand tragedy beltway conventional wisdom makes it out to be. The world is full of examples of democratic countries that are successfully governed by systems of alternating strong majorities. America's political institutions worked well during a period when we had a highly idiosyncratic party system; but that now that the party system has changed so profoundly our institutions need to change with it.

Peter Wehner disagrees:

Earlier this month Democrats, in the mid-term elections, were dealt one of the most massive political rebukes ever. Republicans have not enjoyed this much strength in state capitals since the 1920s or won this many seats in the House since the 1930s. This was the public's emphatic way of saying, "Enough." Mr Obama and the Democrats were deaf to public concerns before November 2nd; they are far more attuned to them now, after their epic comeuppance.

The progressive policies of Mr Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress created a mass public movement, of which the so-called Tea Party movement is but one manifestation. This demonstrated that the American people, rather than being indifferent or inert, are still capable of engaging in politics in an energetic and powerful way. The last two years have showed that civic life in America, at least as it relates to American politics, is still strong and vital.

Now to reject the proposition that America's political system is broken does not mean that it is perfect. There are certainly ways it can be modified and improved. But in the main we retain the same political system that helped America become among the most powerful, successful and benevolent nations in human history. The founders put in place what James Madison called the "auxiliary precautions" of American government. They created a system of checks and balances, one that is weighted towards slowing things down and dispersing power, and that favours stability, patience and holding public officials accountable. It places restraints on revolutionary zeal and the utopian ambitions of ideologues. Mis-steps and incompetence by presidents and other politicians do not invalidate the genius of the founders; in fact, they tend to confirm it.