Almost everyone agrees that American politics today is utterly dysfunctional. Even more depressing is the likelihood that the 2012 elections will do little if anything to ameliorate the situation. Voters are angry and have focused their anger on throwing out the in party and bringing in the out party. In addition to holding the president’s party accountable for bad times, they often become infatuated with candidates who proudly proclaim their distaste for politics, politicians, and institutions, and who pledge their fealty to uncompromising, black-and-white positions. Is there any basis for thinking we can govern ourselves more constructively in the months and years ahead?
Earlier this year we published a book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, which pulled no punches on the primary source of the dysfunction. We argued that deep and abiding partisan polarization has created a serious mismatch between our parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. In a parliamentary system, the government is built on a majority in parliament and can put its program in place and then be held accountable by the voters. But in our system, legislative enactment of a president’s program can be undermined by a determined minority. Parliamentary-like parties in a separation-of-powers government are a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution.
But it’s even worse than that. The polarization between our two major political parties is not symmetric. Neither party is above political posturing and game-playing. But the Republican Party has gone beyond the usual and acceptable political maneuvering and cheap-shotting. It has veered sharply off track, both substantively and procedurally. With two wings, one ideological and the other ruthlessly pragmatic, putting short-term political gain ahead of urgent national problem-solving, it has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited policy regime stretching back to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
Our book recounts numerous examples of transparently opportunistic behavior by the GOP—among them abandoning and demonizing policies it embraced not long ago solely because President Obama is for them, regularly filibustering uncontentious issues and nominations simply to obstruct and take up precious time, and damaging the economic recovery by taking the debt ceiling hostage and then threatening to do it again. Republicans launched their unending political war against the President from the first day of his Administration, in the midst of an economic crisis, in single-minded pursuit of their goals—lower taxes, smaller government, and a restoration of what they consider to be traditional American values.
Elections are supposed to provide voters the means to punish such extreme and destructive behavior. That is the essence of democratic accountability. Unfortunately, the American political system, especially in its current state, makes that task exceedingly difficult. Take this November’s election. The recovery from the most severe financial and economic crisis since the 1930s has been painfully slow, with persistently high levels of unemployment, stagnant wages, and a decline in the net worth of households. Who will be held accountable? The President, because of the inadequacy or unsuitability of his policies, or the Republicans, for blocking much of what he proposed to stimulate the economy and for taking steps (such as immediate reductions in spending and threats of a public default) that almost certainly harmed the recovery? The former is more likely than the latter, in part because of the popular myth that the president controls to some significant degree the state of the economy. This leaves little scope for voter evaluations of the alternate plans proposed by the competing presidential candidates for dealing with our economic problems. In any case, as extensive scholarly research has shown, the small slice of the electorate who are genuine swing voters have the least amount of information to make such a considered judgment.
The quest for democratic accountability is further challenged by the separate elections and election calendars for the White House and Congress. Unlike parliamentary elections, in which a single vote for a member of parliament every three to five years provides a straightforward means of holding governments accountable, our system complicates that calculation and increases the likelihood of divided government in which polarized parties, one of which embraces a radical agenda, remain at loggerheads on the central issues confronting the country. Narrow presidential victories and slim, temporary majorities in Congress are the best results both Obama and Romney can reasonably anticipate.
Free speech shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but it has been drawn into the larger dynamics of polarization in this country.