Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The failure of the American political system

Lots of talk today on the ol' blogosphere about the problem with American constitutional governance, predicated in part by the death of political scientist Juan Linz, and in part, of course, by the shutdown.  The best take is easily Dylan Matthews' on Wonkblog, and I highly suggest you read it.

But with that said, I think even his depiction of the underlying problem is a little more complicated than it needs to be.  The fact is, you don't have to be a political scientist to find the fault in America's political system.  The difficulty is easily described in very simple terms:
-Political systems exist in order to drive government decision-making.  
-In order to do so, they have to be able to resolve contests between competing proposals by different agents. 
-An idealized political system would have a process to resolve a dispute between any two agents or groups of agents (i.e., political parties). 
-Veto points occur when a political system contains a process which requires the mutual consent of two agents, and has no means of resolving a dispute between those agents on how to proceed.  Any time this happens, there exists the potential for deadlock, if the agents disagree.   
-Deadlocks at veto points have to be resolved externally.  Because there is no legitimate political process to call on when they occur, participants have no option but to appeal to outside forces to help resolve the conflict, with unpredictable effects.  This includes everything from fuzzy concepts like "legitimacy" to public opinion to seriously destabilizing stuff like military intervention. 
-This process will eventually result in extra-political actions that destroy the system in question.
Some number of veto points are probably inevitable in any government, the result of the messy process of building a state.  But the American system is basically unique for containing many frequently-encountered veto points at a high level.  The filibuster is one.  The bicameral house is another.  And the division between executive and legislative power is a third.  (The judiciary, by contrast, fares pretty well in this analysis: its ability to overrule and be overruled by the other branches is well-understood.)

So why has the American government survived so long?  With the disclaimer that I'm not a political scientist, here are some guesses.

First off, it hasn't.  Not only was the country eventually split in half by civil war, the American political system has gone through a number of dramatic shifts over time, as different branches and agencies became more or less important in governance.  One of the ironies of Americans' insistence on preserving our relatively old constitution is that doing so has helped disguise what are otherwise some pretty striking discontinuities in the workings of politics.

Second, the relative longevity of American government has allowed the development of norms which help prevent deadlocked political actors from turning to the most extreme external measures.  Or, in plain english, it's unlikely anyone in this country would support a military coup to override a filibuster.

Third, diffuse parties.  Check the Matthews post for more.  Still, I think this is overrated: it's not like legislative party politics has ever been the only potential sticking point in the system.

Finally, our veto points, while very real, usually cause inaction, not crisis.  Deadlocks just mean nothing happens.  This has bizarre, anti-democratic consequences--frequently, it's impossible to get anything done, even if each and every person in Congress prefers action--but it also means that failures don't result in escalating efforts to break the stalemate; instead, they return us to the status quo, which was (presumably) a functioning equilibrium.  In other words, the ability of the political system to automatically elect not to proceed might have insulated it from its other great failings.

But here's the problem: in the current crisis, in order to preserve the status quo, the government must affirmatively elect to proceed.  If Congress can't move forward, the government will slowly erode away and we'll default on our debt.  It's a bad time to find ourselves exposed to America's full array of constitutional flaws, and it's hard to think any of this can end very well.

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