Ronald Reagan cited John Winthrop’s biblically inspired exhortation to the Massachusetts Bay colonists that they become a shining city on a hill, a beacon of inspiration for humankind. Reagan talked as if we already were such a beacon.
Today, however, the United States cannot with a straight face affirm Reagan’s claim. Our democracy is not that “shining city on a hill.” A better metaphor for our times: our country is a lighthouse on the rocks, warning all ships of state away from our example.
As I write this, we are at the point of a contrived crisis called the “Sequester,” which was agreed upon in 2011 as an outcome so repugnant that it would compel Democrats and Republicans to compromise on how to reduce the fiscal deficit. It hasn’t worked, just as the previous approach to this “fiscal cliff,” at the end of last year yielded only a tax increase on the very highest incomes, and the decision to postpone the harder choices until, well, now. And who would bet that we won’t find yet another way to postpone the reckoning?
Our political system is no longer able to make substantive, considered choices about the major issues that confront us. We cannot even decide what those issues are. Entirely lost as we debate sequesters and fiscal cliffs is the question of whether reducing the fiscal deficit now may be counterproductive, by undermining the recovery of the economy. A generation ago, even conservatives would acknowledge the need for stimulus, not deficit-reduction, at a time like this. That consensus is gone. The Tea Party is getting its wish: a government that cannot act.
Diagnosing the causes of this political paralysis is not hard. The cure may be more difficult. It is most evident that we are paralyzed because substantial portions of both the population and the political leadership hold ideas about the role of the state in the economy that cannot be reconciled. Are we to have a night-watchman state or a welfare stare? Are we to police the world or tend our own gardens? Neither of these questions can be decided because advocates on both sides of both issues hold enough power to block their adversaries. The result is gridlock.
Underlying this substantive gulf about ends are several structural features of the political system that make a solution harder. Start with checks and balances, long considered the key to the success of American democracy. Having the President, the House and the Senate separately elected with distinct terms of office and constituencies certainly prevents the tyrannical concentration of power, as Madison argued in The Federalist Papers, but it also blocks any sort of popular mandate, short of a prolonged political crisis such as we had in the 1930s.
It need not be this way. Most Latin American democracies have copied our presidentialist structure, but endowed the president with more power than we have. Most other democracies use a parliamentary system that vests executive authority in a prime minister who has a parliamentary majority. France has both a strong president and a prime minister with a parliamentary majority. Any of these alternative structures would have allowed the American president to lead more effectively than what Obama has been able to muster.
Our electoral arrangements are an embarrassment for a country that claims to be the world’s leading democracy. The Electoral College lends exaggerated importance to a few large swing states while assuring that most of the country is ignored in presidential campaigns. As recently as 2000, the Electoral College (with help from a 5-4 Supreme Court majority) handed the presidency to the loser of the popular vote. Currently, we have Republicans seriously considering ways of manipulating the allocation of electoral votes for partisan advantage. A serious democracy elects its leaders by popular vote.
Our winner-take-all system for electing members of the House and Senate has its own problems. The biggest is gerrymandering, whereby districts can be drawn for partisan gain. Republicans, after their sweeping victories in 2010, were so systematic about this that they could hold their House majority in spite of losing the national popular vote in 2012. Absent such manipulation, Obama would have majorities in both houses of Congress.
Winner-take-all has other problems. It over-represents the largest parties and denies representation to minorities, unless those minorities are geographically concentrated enough to win some seats. It is routine for parties that get less than a majority of the national vote to nonetheless have a majority in the House.
Finally, our current political impasse reflects the underlying economic reality of extreme and growing inequality, in which great economic power is arrayed (under the banner of free speech established by the current Supreme Court) against the popular majority. It is votes against dollars. Democracy is built on the presumption of the equality of all citizens, but how can that equality be made real in the face of such concentrated economic power?
If this flawed democracy is to live up to its aspiration, to become the shining city on a hill, we will need a prolonged and profound popular movement, led by the best we can produce, to generate fundamental changes, economic, social, and political.
Don’t hold your breath. And keep clear of the rocks.
Wednesday, 27 February 2013