Observers occasionally sigh deeply and blame this on bitter polarization of the two major political parties. But that’s not quite the problem. Nor is the issue that our political system is ill-designed. It’s that our political system is ill-designed for parties that are so polarized. Our system is designed for consensus. When that breaks down, the system turns on itself, its many veto points and blockages placing a chokehold on action. To escape the gridlock, the parties establish elaborate extra-congressional fixes, circumventing the political system itself. The government can still work. It just doesn’t work very well: not for liberals, not for conservatives, not for the country.
The essay's headline is "Isn't it time to admit the system is broken?", to which the answer is almost certainly "yes". The system is very broken. The public's nexus for policy accountability—the Presidency—has very limited power to affect policy outcomes. Actors with the largest ability to affect outcomes have extreme incentive to produce poor outcomes while the opposition controls the White House.
Still, observing the brokenness of "The System" shouldn't alleviate the agency of the people currently working within the system. After all, "The System" is populated by people. The decisions to maximize the use of procedural tools to gain tactical advantages at the expense of compromise were made by living, breathing, individuals who have names and faces, not the output of some game theory simulation in a poli sci major's PhD thesis. These decisions could be unmade with or without changes to Congressional procedure.
That said, in the past our response to a breakdown in social norms that prevented the use of Congressional procedure to obstruct has been to ... alter Congressional policy, as Jeff Merkley pointed out to Ezra Klein some time ago. No one has stepped up to the plate to do this yet; there have been some nibbles around the edges, but no real changes. And, surprisingly, no real prospects for procedural change on the horizon.
This is somewhat silly. Our system selects the people. If you don't operate according the incentives the system creates for you, you are booted out and replaced, until eventually an incumbent accepts those incentives and gets to stay put. Under those conditions, I hardly care about the moral qualities of the people involved, you know what outcome you're going to get because of the system.
But there have been no substantial procedural changes in the last 30 years. Do you think all the policy shifts in that time span are due to changes in public opinion/changes in the policy preferences of our electeds? Or has there been a change in norms around the use of procedure?
The system is broken for a good part of the American people - those who expect to be represented responsibly, honestly and competently. It seems to work for those who prefer ignorance, anger and greed.
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