America’s non-political political system

Ezra Klein has a column today in which he claims that the American political system is broken and we should “admit” that. Congress can only be forced to take necessary measures by either binding itself or creating an artificial crisis, and where it fails to act, it leaves the executive to take over in an unaccountable and non-transparent way. It seems difficult to deny that this is true. There is one part of his analysis, however, that I find curious:

Observers occasionally sigh deeply and blame this on bitter polarization of the two major political parties. But that’s not quite the problem. Nor is the issue that our political system is ill-designed. It’s that our political system is ill-designed for parties that are so polarized. Our system is designed for consensus. When that breaks down, the system turns on itself, its many veto points and blockages placing a chokehold on action.

This is one area where the Founders’ complete lack of experience with representative republics was a major liability: they didn’t appear to realize that relatively well-defined, oppositional parties are more or less a natural outgrowth of representative democracy. Indeed, many of the Federalist Papers claim that the constitutional order is designed to prevent such factions from arising.

Given that well-defined parties arose within the first couple decades of the ratification of the Constitution, that turned out to be an amazingly bad call. And given the way the Constitutional order is set up, it virtually guarantees periods of divided government, even if only because of the differing term lengths for the two houses of Congress and the presidency.

The end result is a political system that essentially excludes politics. It excludes decisive action. It excludes the possibility of coherent policies being implemented so that their results can be seen clearly by all. It excludes the possibility of clear lines of responsibility so that voters can register their discontent in a meaningful way.

The positive spin on this is that it keeps special interests from going crazy and instead forces everyone to come up with common sense solutions. The more realistic spin is that it creates a culture of muddling through and kicking the can down the road — most explosively with the major political conflict that the Founders tried to “compromise” on in the constitution and that was then the subject of multiple rounds of “compromise” as the nation expanded: slavery. That was only resolved after a civil war, and its toxic racist legacy is what introduced the incoherence into our two major parties that led to the golden age of bipartisanship so mourned by our pundit class.

In short, America’s is a weirdly post-political political system. It wants to have always been done with politics, to replace it with consensus, compromise, and generous helpings of technocratic rule — as illustrated by the fact that most of the initial decisions about the shape of the national economy were made by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

Thus it is perhaps not so difficult to understand why our most energetic political movement, the radical right that currently goes under the name of the Tea Party, is politically mobilized against the state itself. A constitutional order that tried to exclude politics is now facing a return of the repressed, as all the sensible compromises come undone and all the technicalities that were designed for decent people who know better have become weaponized. In the Senate, the right wing has already weaponized the very pretense of reasoned debate through its persistent abuse of the fillibuster — and their latest target for destruction was the national debt, one of the most significant legacies of the great technocrat Hamilton.

6 thoughts on “America’s non-political political system

  1. This is nicely put. And if we recall that the original 13 colonies were a unity in search of a reason for being so — the north-south divide being only one of the major internal divisions that had to be elided — it makes all the sense in the world that the constitutional order they only narrowly got everyone to buy into would be, as it was, a great machine for papering over deep subterranean disputes until the next generation could get around to solving them or something. Luckily there was gigantic resource-rich continent on western border that they could turn into an endless input of wealth and keep everyone busy, for a couple centuries, to keep the whole thing from cracking up. The repressed that’s returning, after all, has some real commonalities with the anti-federalist tendency, and the red rural-blue urban split in our politics also has a lot of resemblance to the way the Federalists in Atlantic ports regarded the “dark continent” in the rural backcountry.

  2. What I find funny is that their (the factions) differences aren’t really that big at all. They’re mostly ideological but in a really pathetic way. Basically everyone in Congress believes in the USA, they believe in capitalism, they believe in the system that is in place. Those are some major commonalities.

    I guess people just like to find excuses to fight about things (read: pissing contest). So it’s not even really about the USA at all, it’s about winning. Back in the days of people who studied the classics and such, they were probably more adept at rhetoric, debate, etc. We, in the West, seem to have, for the most part, lost the art of conversation, persuasion, and compromise in the light of things that are more important than having our way right now. So perhaps the ‘founders’ didn’t anticipate that people who’s country relies on those things would let themselves be dumbed down so much that they don’t actually employ those methods. I guess ‘the market’ wants people dumb, so when we put ‘the market’ it charge it makes sure they are.

  3. Honestly, we just need a new Constitution, or a provision to rid ourselves of the imperial Presidency (the office all together) in favor of a multi-party system under a prime minister. Can’t we just admit that?

  4. I think Klein is wrong to say that the US political system is designed for consensus – rather, it’s designed to prevent dissensus from turning into, as you say, “relatively well-defined, oppositional parties,” that is, from becoming political. The thing I find interesting about this is that the constitution is put forward as a technical solution to this problem of politics; fast-forward 200 years, and the combination of wonkery and game theory that makes up the study of American politics is based on pretty much the same attempt to find a technical way of converting diversity into decisions while bypassing politics.

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