[From Common Dreams, a website dedicated to progressive political views and uncovering the outrages being committed on a daily basis by the powerful in the USA and their cohorts the world over. An excerpt of a longer article about the brokenness of the United States political system. Please read it and share it with your friends, in the name of those supposed rights to freedom and democracy which Americans used to believe they had.]
Which brings us to even deeper maladies being suffered by the body politic. This debacle demonstrates in full the degree to which the American political system is completely broken. But, alas, not in the way people think, which leads to the possibility (and, given the events of the last thirty years, the likelihood) that in the coming years we will simply compound our problems in response to these indicators, by simply going further in the direction of our systemic carnage, rather than running as fast as we can the other way.
” There are four main issues here, and none of them are peripheral or symptomatic – each of these go to the core dysfunctionality of the American political system. They are: the American presidential system, its electoral system, the extensive use of judicial review, and the kleptocratic ownership of the state.”
Americans revere their Constitution, but they mostly don’t know why. Just like we grow up Catholics or Mets fans or anti-communists, we just by-and-large think what we’re told to think and do what we’re told to do, never stopping to ask the big Why? questions. As a political scientist, I do admire certain feats of engineering embodied in the Constitution, and the clever solutions these provided to otherwise intractable problems at the time of the Founders. And as a citizen, I admire parts of the document – such as the Bill of Rights – very much, especially given the era from which they emerged.
However, one of the handful of most salient ideas of the Constitution is a bad one, as has becomes increasingly evident in our time for anyone who cares to look. This is the notion of separation of powers, along with the twin concept of checks and balances. I suspect most Americans don’t even realize that you don’t have to structure your political regime this way in order to have a democracy, and in fact, most democracies don’t. They use a parliamentary system instead, rather than our model, which is referred to as a presidential system. What’s the difference? Well, in a parliamentary system, you have one singular government responsible for governing. The executive function (prime minister and cabinet) emerges directly out of the legislative function (parliament) to which it is permanently fused, and, meanwhile, there typically is no judiciary with the power to speak to legislative matters. That means, quite simply, that the undivided government governs, unimpeded by anything other than the criticisms of the media and the opposition, and how its work plays with public opinion. It gets things done – none of the divided government plaguing the American system so badly today – and if the public approves, it gets another term. If not, it doesn’t.
It’s a simple straightforward concept that fully embodies the notion of responsible government, thus permitting accountability and, ultimately, real functioning democracy. Contrast that with the American system. Is there anybody in the US who isn’t unhappy with the current government? Maybe that one guy in Nebraska, but he’s been off his meds for years now. Or the woman in Florida with the sixty-seven cats. Otherwise, though, the remaining three hundred million of us are pretty much sickened by Washington. So what do we do?
Well, throw the bums out, of course, and replace them with some new bums. But think about what that would mean today. We would be replacing a Republican House with a Democratic one, a Democratic Senate (with an insufficiently large enough majority to do anything) with a Republican Senate of the same gridlocked structure, and a right-wing Democratic president with a Republican president. Wow! That’d be a relief, eh?! What a difference that would make! What a prescription for boldly launching the future!
We are, of course, a million miles away from shredding the worshiped Constitution (and a change of this magnitude to such a core item would indeed represent something of a shred, starting with Articles One, Two and Three), and even further from possibly imagining that foreign people – let alone those squishy European bastards who inconveniently live healthier, happier and longer lives – could teach us anything about anything. But, that said – since we’re just talking among friends here – one of the greatest gifts we could give ourselves at this point would be a parliamentary system and the gift of responsible government. Then, when we’re not happy with any particular government we’ve got, we can make a change at the ballot box which might actually result in a genuine change of direction.
Assuming, that is, that there is an alternative to be chosen. If, on the other hand, you have an electoral system like ours, you can have parliamentary government and yet may still be left with only two parties to pick from. Worse still, on fundamental issues like foreign policy and the distribution of wealth in the society, the parties may be identical enough (or just owned enough) so as to offer no real choice at all. Hello! Can you say “America 2012”? There are a lot of systemic reasons for this duopoly we’ve produced in American politics, but the chief one is our use of the winner-take-all district model electoral system – which will tend to produce two dominant parties over the long-haul wherever it is employed – instead of a proportional representation system, which does not. Again, god forbid Americans should learn anything from anyone else, but if we did stoop that low, we might want to think about revising our electoral system (which would not require Constitutional amendment). It would do us a world of good, not only by giving us multiple and genuine choices at the ballot box, but also by injecting alternative ideas into our poverty-stricken political discourse.
Meanwhile, if we return to the separation of powers problem again for a moment, we encounter another severe problem which is a natural artifact of that system. If you’re going to have separate branches of government, each with the capacity to check and balance against each other, that means your judiciary pretty much needs to have the power known as judicial review in order to be a meaningful player in that contest. This term refers to the capacity to strike down legislation produced by the other two branches. Again, this is – especially to the degree with which it is practiced here – a fairly peculiarly American idea. In most other democracies, parliament rules. Period, full stop. Not here.
But there is one last peril that threatens American democracy today, to a degree not seen for at least a century, and to the extent that the term democracy itself becomes a rather dubious appellation for the system we live under. Let’s just be honest, shall we? – if for no other reason than the refreshing novelty of doing so: Fundamentally, the representatives in our ‘representative government’ don’t represent you and me. They represent the one percent. You can play all the games you want about how campaigns are funded, and spin all the tall tales you need to about how money ‘only’ buys access, not Congressional votes, but the real system of pay-to-play is transparently obvious to anyone willing to risk even a sidelong glance at the emperor’s new clothes. It’s just that simple and just that broken.
The only place American representative democracy exists anymore today is in eighth-grade civics textbooks.
General governance mechanics are important, as I’ve noted at some length above, and there are campaign finance systems that are way better than others at promoting true democratic representation, to be sure. But at the bottom of the pile of political engineering problems lies human nature. If we allow greed to control our public sphere, we will wind up with a government representing the one percent and not the ninety-nine percent. Indeed, it will be a government very much intentionally governing at the expense of the ninety-nine percent. We will wind up with a political system that is completely dysfunctional, except for purposes of the wholesale transfer of wealth upwards. We will wind up with policies in every domain – from national security to tobacco policy to guns, prisons and taxes and far beyond – that reflects the needs of the special monied interests over the public interest. And we will end up with a health care system whose purpose is not to provide health, but rather to enrich insurance and pharmaceutical corporations.
Hey, what the hell am I doing, saying “We will…”? Strike that.
Welcome to America, 2012.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.