U.S. Politics

What the shutdown says about America's shattered government

As Americans emerge from their blissful holiday cocoons this week, they are greeted by the longest government shutdown since 2013, a presidency in crisis, and the prospect of a horizon-less stalemate between the Democratic House and the Republican-held Senate and White House. With President Trump and soon-to-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi entrenched in their irreconcilable positions about the president's fanciful border wall, no one knows who or what will break the logjam and restore American government to its previous minimally functional status.

Beyond the new cycle optics, this might be a good time to ask ourselves about the deeper problems with our system of government and what we might do about them.

From a purely political standpoint, Democrats are clearly "winning" the shutdown, although that's a little bit like triumphing in a competition of punching yourself in the face. When the president blundered into taking full responsibility for a shutdown in his Dec. 11 meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in full view of the cameras he invited into the room, he made it impossible to change the narrative. The president is playing a trash hand poorly. Not only do voters decisively oppose construction of a border wall, but they also don't believe that the government should be shuttered over it and blame Republicans for the impasse. By a margin of 47 percent to 33 percent, voters hold the president rather than Democrats responsible for the ugly mess in Washington, and if you throw in the 7 percent who blame congressional Republicans, the GOP is 21 points under water with the current strategy.

Yet the president, egged on by the 10 or so oblivious pundits who have his ear on this issue, is curiously all in here and doesn't see the need for a strategic retreat. The bottom line is that President Trump and his coterie of immigration hardliners seem to be the last people in D.C. not to understand that America will not be building a 1,900-mile wall along its southern border any time soon. They have hijacked an empty plane and are issuing demands like it's full of women and children. The stupidity is staggering.

Take a step back from the extra-loud shouting, finger-pointing, and poll-driven analysis for a moment though, and behold the dismal failure of the American system of government. These endless budget standoffs have dominated national debate and policymaking for eight years and running with no resolution in sight. The inability of the country's national legislature, in conjunction with its executive branch, to perform the most basic task of funding the operations of the government — not just once but over and over again, bringing us to the brink of this crisis seemingly every month since 2011 — really should make us ponder yet again some of the most problematic design features of the American constitutional order.

In political science terms, we operate a "presidential democracy," whose distinguishing feature is that the executive is elected separately from the legislature. That basic structure creates the possibility of what we have in the United States today — divided government, where the presidency and one or more branches of Congress are controlled by different parties. As the late political scientist Juan Linz wrote, when warring parties under divided government can't compromise, "there is no democratic principle" that can resolve the impasse. This built-in conflict and the potential it creates for the collapse of democracy is what led him to endorse a parliamentary system — in which the executive is chosen by the majority party or coalition in a single legislature, thereby mostly eliminating the kind of gridlock we see in the U.S. — as the safer form of government. "The superior historical performance of parliamentary democracies is no accident," according to Linz. To that basic institutional design flaw, the United States has added its absurd, 60-vote requirement in the Senate in the form of the filibuster, making it difficult even for duly constituted unified governments to act authoritatively and exacerbating the country's long-term policy paralysis.

This critique of the American system was popularized a few years ago by Vox writer Matthew Yglesias, who leaned heavily on Linz's ideas to claim in a widely read essay that our democracy is "doomed." Yglesias, like Linz, was focused mostly on the potential for presidential democracies to backslide into authoritarianism, whether suddenly, as with the 1973 military putsch in Chile, or gradually, as is happening in Brazil. But scholars have also looked at whether parliamentarism is simply a better operating system across a wide range of variables, beyond the durability of democracy. And as much as Trumpism threatens the survival of the American democratic experiment, the sclerosis produced by our peculiar form of presidentialism long predates and almost certainly will survive the president.

Linz's contention that parliamentary systems are broadly superior appears to be backed up by the data. As social scientists John Gerring, Strom Thacker, and Carola Moreno recently argued, "It appears that parliamentary systems hold distinct advantages over presidential ones across a wide range of indicators of political, economic and human development." Countries with parliamentary systems feature greater levels of human development, lower corruption, and more robust economic development. The authors theorize that due to their greater capacity for decisive and flexible policymaking, parliamentary systems are better "coordination devices." In other words, they're better at doing the things that governments are meant to — providing public goods in the form of freely available services, protecting common assets, and ensuring that all citizens contribute to the endeavor. Importantly, they are much better positioned than fragmented presidential systems at reorienting the ship of state to avert disaster or tackle pressing problems.

That brings us back to America in 2019. The United States is not exactly mid-collapse Easter Island, but it's also beset by a variety of serious crises that call for sustained, concerted and thoughtful action. Tens of millions of people are uninsured, nearly every city that isn't a burned-out crater features an affordable housing crisis, real wages have been mostly stagnant for two generations, runaway inequality threatens to break trust in the basic fairness of our society, and broad swathes of our coastal areas are in the process of becoming dangerous and uninhabitable due to climate change. Our airports would be embarrassing everywhere except in the least developed countries, we are rocking a rail system that was out of date 50 years ago and has received basically no attention whatsoever from the national government, and the rest of the infrastructure we erected after World War II from our once-in-a-millennium perch atop the economic world needs trillions of dollars in updates that political leaders have been too selfish and short-sighted to even begin to address.

Historians will ultimately view the first 20 years of the 21st century as lost decades, when the United States failed to seize opportunity after opportunity to avoid disaster with clever, informed policymaking. Unfortunately, transforming America into a better-functioning parliamentary democracy is about as realistic as abolishing the Senate, so we're going to have to learn to work within the confines of the institutions we have. But even given those limitations, it's long past time to start thinking about how we might at least, avoid the kind of ugly, destructive budget battles that have characterized the past decade.

For years, Republicans have been pressing a balanced budget amendment. A number of states have passed resolutions calling for an Article V convention to amend the Constitution, although such legislation has failed to gain any traction in Congress. But rather than arbitrarily limiting the spending power of the state, what Congress and the states really ought to do is to devise a mechanism to resolve disagreements between the branches over baseline government spending — call it a Continuing Budget Amendment. Rather than descending into chaos every time Congress and the president can't agree on funding levels, we could embed a resolution into the constitutional order, either a mechanism that automatically renews existing funding levels for some set period of time (3 or 6 or 9 months, for instance) or even mandates spending increases indexed to inflation for the duration of the standoff. While it wouldn't avoid long-term O.K.-Corralling over big-picture disagreements, such an amendment would eliminate the hostage-taking incentive that leads hardliners in both parties to refuse any form of compromise.

Beyond such a fix, it is really up to the voters to stop dividing the government, a task made harder by the way the electoral system frequently mistranslates popular sentiment into minority rule. But the voters must keep trying. While the checks-and-balances model may have fit mid-century America, with parties that are now sharply divided over policy and voters who increasingly despise one another, what the country really needs is to be able to choose a direction and stick with it. Perhaps another two years of policy drift and political trench warfare will finally convince voters to adjust the rudder accordingly.

In the meantime, as you await deliverance into a functional governance Valhalla, I hope you don't need to use the restroom at a national park.


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