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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Did the Founders Fail?

Some critics of the American system have recently said that it is too democratic and responsive. As we note in our textbook (pp. 316-317), another school of thought has long held that it is not responsive enough and that parliamentary systems are superior in this respect. At the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson writes:
Those who defend our system concede—indeed, exult—that it places roadblocks in the path of major policy shifts. When the nation faces a genuine crisis, they argue, our government invariably rises to the occasion, as it did in Roosevelt’s time. Unfortunately, that’s a selective reading of our history. One hundred and fifty years ago, our government was not up to the task of holding the union together. Today, as the Great Recession grinds on, the different branches of government cannot agree on a course of action.

The root cause of all this inactivity is our peculiar form of democracy. While most democracies are governed by parliamentary systems, our Founders opted for a presidential system, which they consciously booby-trapped with multiple veto points to impede decisive legislative action and sweeping social change.

In America, for instance, presidents take office, but they don’t form a government, as prime ministers do in virtually every other democracy. Presidents can form no more than an executive branch. They appoint cabinet members, sub-cabinet officials, military commanders, ambassadors, and the heads of regulatory agencies. They don’t appoint congressional leaders; often as not, their party may not control either or both houses of Congress. Indeed, the White House, the Senate, and the House have been controlled by the same party during just 8 of the past 30 years. Even when the same party holds Congress and the presidency, the system still fragments power.
Meyerson suggests a remedy:
Although the federal government can’t go parliamentary, why can’t the states? Maintaining two legislative bodies at the state level has been pointless for the past 50 years, ever since the Supreme Court’s one-person, one-vote decisions; those rulings required state Senate districts, once apportioned by geographical unit (such as counties), to be apportioned by population, just as lower-house districts are. Talk about duplication and waste in government! Nebraska has long had a unicameral legislature. There’s no good reason why 49 other states shouldn’t follow suit. Nor is there a reason why at least a few more compact and homogenous states—Vermont? Oregon? Utah?—can’t go one step further to a parliamentary system. Two and a quarter centuries after the Philadelphia convention, America should be ready for some small-scale experiments in majority rule.
Mr Meyerson needs to explain away not only the New Deal, but pretty much everything he thinks America did right before and after. I should think it's a lot. Indeed, despite having such a lousy system of political institutions for centuries, America has somehow managed to become one of the world's wealthiest, most advanced societies, as well as something of a global hegemon. What might America have become without the handicaps heaped upon it by its myopic founders!?

[T]he main thing the American state could have done, but did not do, to mitigate the effects of the great recession was to announce a higher inflation target and then do what it takes to hit it. But that's up to the Fed, which is meant to be independent of the democratic will, and a good thing it is, too. It's hard to see how a parliamentary system would have helped. Indeed, if America had had one, it strikes me that, given the cast of public opinion, America's centre-right government would have done much as David Cameron's centre-right government has done in Britain and pursued a programme of fiscal restraint. I assume that's not what Mr Meyerson wants.