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Dysfunction in Washington: The U.S. Political System in Turmoil

After my previous article critiquing the effect of inequality on the U.S. economy, it seemed apt to continue in a similar vein in this article and continue with my analysis of the U.S. This time the focus will be on the U.S. political system and the pure dysfunction which has come to characterises it in the contemporary era. It has led political commentator and former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura tothe two main political parties as ‘Democrips and Rebloodicans’, in a comparison to gang warfare. For many, dysfunction in Washington will not be anything new; however the problems in the U.S. political system are becoming observably worse, and the circus this creates is having a noticeable effect on policy formulation and implementation.

Firstly, it is important to look at the system as a whole. The U.S political system operates in a late 18th century constitutional system which is based around the separation of powers with separately elected institutions and constraints on majority rule. This in itself has become problematic as ‘a misplaced reverence for ordinary men’ has caused the system to become rigid and outdated, with just 27 changes being made in 225 years. This is comparable to Germany, to whom many of the new democracies coming out of the former Soviet Union looked to instead of the U.S., whose constitution has changed 59 times since 1949. The U.S. style of constitutional politics is heavily reliant on cooperation, coalition and compromise to function effectively and to the advantage of all involved.  However, the architects of the constitution failed to predict the importance of political parties which they saw as a ‘regrettable expression of conflict among competing interests’. So when these conditions are not adhered to and Congress begins to become polarised, this system becomes increasingly problematic and dysfunctional. Today the U.S. is experiencing the effects of a polarised Congress; the 111th Congress between 2009 and 2010 was the most ideologically polarised in modern history, with the most conservative Democrat being more liberal than the most liberal Republican. Political polarisation is not a new phenomenon in U.S. politics as it occurred during the late 19th century and the early 20th century. However, the recent resurgence is highly problematic in the contemporary period due to the dire economic situation the U.S. is in and the urgent need for compromise that addressing this issue requires. One of the key reasons for polarisation in the present day is division over basic questions of what the federal government ought to do. Disagreement on a fundamental level between both parties is causing a huge divide in Congress and exacerbating the issues the U.S. faces rather than solving them, creating what Mann and Ornstein (2013) deem a ‘coarsened, divided and tribal political culture’ which is detrimental to the nation.

The fundamental issue of polarisation in U.S. politics is that it is contradictory to a separation of powers system and is more accustomed to a Westminster-style parliamentary party system. Austin Ranney stated in the 1950’s that ideological, unified and adversarial parties would be a disaster for U.S. politics as this type of party is not compatible with the system in which they reside. This is illustrated by the fact that from Jan 2013 to May 2014 only 89 pieces of substantive legislation were enacted, comparable to the same point 10 years earlier in which almost double the amount of substantive laws had been enacted. At a time when the nation is languishing in debt with a huge deficit, the lack of action on the part of Congress is adding to, and also creating new, problems which are significantly damaging to the economy.

The result of polarisation is political gridlock and an inability of Congress to tackle important issues, which during a period of economic difficulties can be catastrophic. Gridlock has caused the budget process to become jammed with bills rarely finished for the fiscal year which is economically damaging, the confirmation process for presidential nominees has slowed dramatically leaving many vital positions unfilled, cross party deliberation is rare as every minor issues see parties confront each other ‘as massed armies on the front lines of every contested issue’. So rather than putting their differences aside and embracing the cooperation, coalition and compromise, which is crucial for effective governance, the current polarisation is creating a political gridlock and inaction. The U.S. political system is accentuating the economic difficulties by failing to address them and being unable to create any feasible or sustainable solution due to its own dysfunction.

Although the blame for polarisation can be attributed to both Republicans and Democrats moving further to the right and left respectively, the Republicans can be seen to be far more radical and more ideologically extreme than Democrats. Norman Ornstein describes today’s Republican Party as ‘a radical insurgency – ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition’, with Noam Chomsky also deeming them ‘a serious danger to the society’. Mann and Ornstein (2013) claim that over the last 50 years “…the terms ‘liberal Republican’ or ‘moderate Republican’ have practically become oxymorons”. Such claims are not unfounded as the radicalisation of the Republican party has led to an increased use of ‘hardball tactics’ and an increasing disdain for compromise, resulting in government shutdowns, debt ceiling hostage taking and nullification efforts. During the Debt Limit Crisis in 2011 the Republicans used hardball tactics to demand dramatic and unilateral policy change by, for the first time, calling for default which would have had huge economic implications and was effectively an attempt to hold the government to ransom (Mann & Ornstein, 2013). Another tactic implemented by the Republicans is ‘new nullification’, which involves blocking nominations despite the competence and integrity of the nominee to prevent the implementation of laws. This tactic is explicitly used to impede the implementation of laws and hence hinder the government from functioning. So the Republican Party is essentially sabotaging the government on purpose, so claims of insurgency are certainly not unfounded. The tenets of compromise and cooperation do not seem to resonate with today’s Republican Party, who views the opposition as an enemy rather than an entity to work alongside for the good of the nation. Having such a party implementing such tactics can only have a detrimental effect on policy implementation and reform which is urgently required to address economic issues and will negatively affect the efficiency of the government. According to Mann, ‘divided government is today a formula for inaction, not an opportunity for bipartisan legislating’, hence with the current situation the government has ceased to function as a legislative body.

The inability of Congress to make decisions or pass laws is down to the dysfunctional political system and how it is being abused by both parties for their own gains rather than that of the nation. It has created an inadequate system of government which is incapable of forming necessary policies or implementing effectively. The reform necessary to address the current economic situation cannot be achieved in a system which is increasingly divided. U.S. politics is becoming progressively more characterised by partisan infighting and a slow ineffective decision making process. The inefficiency of the government is thus adding to the serious problems mounting against the U.S. and creating more obstacles, rather than being an effective leader to drag the U.S. out of the economic quagmire it finds itself in.

Author Biography

Daniel Millward is currently a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Daniel’s main areas of interest are U.S. domestic politics, the politics of the EU, U.K politics, human rights, and social justice.

Reference: Mann, Thomas E. & Ornstein, Norman J. (2013), It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, Basic Books: New York.

Cover image: hsbfrank under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license


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