Reports of America's Political Collapse Are Probably Premature

There's a lot of gloom about America's political system lately. The concern, increasingly, is not so much that individual politicians or even political parties are leading the country down the wrong path (though those concerns certainly abound as well), but rather: there are increasing doubts as to whether the structure of America's political system can even continue to serve it well.

In a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, David Brooks commented: "Usually when I travel from Washington to Britain I move from less gloom to more gloom. But this time the mood is reversed. The British political system is basically functional while the American system is not." He talks about how, though the two main parties "are happy to rubbish each other," they actually agree on more than they disagree.

This is a type of consensus about how to move forward that we in America can only dream of, it seems. Indeed, I can barely hide my admiration and envy of the British and the "adult" decision its electorate has made to put two parties into office that have touted a message of radical reform, coupled with searing spending cuts and some tax increases to boot. The Conservatives came to power while actively expressing the viewpoint that this had to be done. The voters, seemingly, agreed.

All true. But there are two problems with this narrative. For one, voters were not entirely certain what they wanted and were obviously torn, as they failed to give any single party a majority in an electoral system, like America's, that is designed to do just that. The Conservatives don't have a full mandate, they must share power with the liberal democrats. Fine, you say, but the LibDems and the Tories (the nickname for the Conservatives) still came together to agree on the current reform package. This is true, but it may have just been time. Bond markets were already getting edgy about Britain's debt. A looming crisis can compel. The other side of this, too, is that the election may have been more a renunciation of the Labor party, which had ruled Britain for more than a decade, rather than a vote FOR the Tories or the LibDems. The electorate, therefore, seems much less coherently for the changes that are occurring in Westminster than the election results might have us believe.

The second problem is that none of this represents systematic problems, in the sense of a problem with the system's structure itself (as opposed to problems spread throughout a system, another definition of the word "systematic"). As Brooks mentions in his Op-Ed piece, "a generation of misrule between 1945 and 1979 left the U.K. with three large problems: a stifled industrial economy; an overcentralized welfare state; and an enervated people, some of whom are locked in cycles of poverty." Indeed, the 1970s were an extraordinarily tumultuous time in British politics, with Scottish and Irish voters plumping for local parties in 1974, causing a hung parliament (a parliament with no party in the majority). The first coalition that was formed broke down within months. Another election in the same year produced a majority, but defections later destroyed this. In-fighting caused further problems. At the same time, inflation was high, peaking at over 20%. The government tried to stop this by forcing wages to stop rising. This worked fairly well, it seems, but you can imagine the uproar from labor unions. Strikes led to important services being shut down repeatedly and to a huge loss in productivity. Perhaps the most embarrassing event occurred in 1976, when Britain required an IMF bailout! The gloom and sense of political decay must have been palpable!

This all ended with the thumping election victory of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party in 1979. Her party introduced numerous reforms, broke the defiance of the unions (with electoral support), and got the country moving again. My point here is not to discuss the controversial aspects of her reign. Rather, the point is: I am sure Britons must have begun to doubt the ability of their political system to provide for a stable, well-managed country during the difficult 1970s. And yet, that very same system produced a political consensus that went on to last for 18 years and to fundamentally change the United Kingdom. The subsequent Labor Government, though it presided over financial deregulation and a boom that turned to bust, also made sweeping and positive changes based on solid electoral victories. The system produced good and bad governments, but the system itself was not fundamentally changed. This is important to remember as we look longingly across the Atlantic at those grown-up British, prudently taking self-administered medicine.

My point is: America has had rough and divided times before, too, and has survived (though the biggest division in history led to the Civil War, which is a rather dramatic version of "surviving"). The problem is not really the system, but that the electorate is honestly uncertain of the best path forward. In this environment, two competing ideologies are espoused by leaders, and Americans seem intent on trying them both simultaneously. In the end, there may be some sort of real crisis (like bond market jitters) that forces real change, but the electorate needs to get its act together first.

That said, there are a few systemic issues that serve to intensify problems, primarily by intensifying polarity. The main culprit here, to my mind, is Gerrymandering. This is drawing voting districts in such a way that seats become safe for one party or another. This is not a partisan issue; since both parties "benefit" from it, at least locally and in the short term, both do it frequently. California has been one of the worst examples, though I believe it has now enacted legislation to put this to an end.

Making seats safe for one party or other leads to polarization because the general election no longer matters. Instead, the primary matters. For example, if a district is so gerrymandered that only a democrat has a chance of winning, then the democratic primary becomes the de facto election. To win the primary, a candidate must pander to the party base. That means they can ignore republicans and independents. (This is, of course, all true for same republican seats, too.) What's more, the democratic voters themselves can ignore the others, too. Normally, voters might think "well, I don't agree with all this candidate says, but I think she has a better chance of beating the republican." If voters know the primary candidate will win the election, they can easily vote for the one closest to their beliefs (which are "extreme" by their very nature, as democrats and republicans are left and right of center, respectively, and their fired up bases on the extremes are the ones surest to vote in primaries). Less political polarization would go a long way to helping America find the consensus needed to move ahead and solve problems. The Senate cannot be gerrymandered, since senators are elected state-wide. This is why the senate has a reputation for being the "saner" of the two houses (another reason is the longer senate term, meaning senators don't have to constantly campaign and can actually get on with governing as they reason is best).

But even gerrymandering is not a problem to make or break America. It, too, can be fixed via the electoral process if voters want to fix it. What America needs most is informed and diligent voters to move the country onto the right path, or, at the very least, a coherent one. No system in the world can counter an electorate that is not doing its job except, of course, for a dictatorship. When voters have not paid attention in the past (or even the present: think Venezuela), this is also precisely what they have gotten. THAT would be a broken political system. America's, as yet, is not.


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