Africa and the Middle East

A Nation Apart from its Politics: Change in the Electorate and Culture Will Break Washington’s Gridlock.

March 4, 2015

If you just started paying attention to American government in 2010, you would probably think that our constitutional democracy is on the verge of collapse. Actual government shutdowns or close calls, debt ceiling fiascoes and credit downgrades, plummeting trust in government institutions, across the board cuts to all government programs and general congressional inaction have prompted some to argue our cherished constitutional democracy on life support.

“American Democracy is Doomed,” declares Vox’s Matt Yglesias. In a thought-provoking piece he paints a disturbing vision of a future in which a weakened Congress, a polarized electorate and an increasingly powerful presidency cause a constitutional crisis that fundamentally alters American government forever. This coming “collapse of the legal and political order” isn’t forecast to be violent and, and if we’re lucky, it will provide us a more robust political system. That said, Yglesias warns, “if we’re less lucky, well, then, something worse will happen.”

It’s inarguable that government dysfunction is now commonplace. But Yglesias and others who view the American political system as hopelessly broken are wrong. While short term weakness in government may persist, over the long term demographics, cultural changes and the power of the American public to influence the system will challenge the current state of disorder.

That’s not to say that Yglesias’ argument has no merit. His shocking conclusion is drawn from two recent trends and bolstered by political science. The first trend is the growth of presidential power that has, under the last two presidents, exceeded legal authority or circumvented the intent of Congress. Often, as in the example of President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration, these expansions of power are blamed on a dysfunctional Congress, paralyzed by ideologically-pure parties. But this is a recipe for disaster.

Yglesias relies on Juan Linz’s argument about the inherent weakness of presidential democracies to bolster his findings. Linz observes that only one other nation besides the United States has had more than 150 years of constitutional continuity under a presidential system. That nation, Chile, ended this streak with a political breakdown in 1970. 

Yglesias isn’t the only one making this argument; his colleague at Vox Dylan Matthews agrees.  “The United States’ system of government is a nightmare,” he declares. “The Constitution requires levels of consensus between branches of government that are not realistic in a modern country with ideologically polarized parties…it’s reasonable to predict that America’s untenable system of government will fall apart, probably in our lifetimes.”

The seemingly intractable political dysfunction of late certainly is disturbing. It is deeply troubling that the legislature cannot address social and public policy problems within the legal channels set forth by the Constitution. It is also true that executive agency fills the power vacuum created by a gridlocked Congress. Yglesias and Matthews see our political system in a death spiral based on the way it functions right now. But their assumptions about the future of the political system are based on current conditions with no forecast for change.

But American democracy is always in transformation. Three big shifts in particular could reorder politics and breathe life into our constitutional democracy.

First is cultural change. Cultural change often feels glacial: Shifting values within American society lead to changes to long-held norms or laws and an accompanying backlash from those opposed to such changes. These changes often inflate short term polarization in the electorate, and that polarization is reflected in Congress. But in the long term, changing cultural norms can have a pacifying effect on particularly noxious disagreements in society. Numerous African Americans have been elected to Congress since civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s. Those few first elected officials were all Democrats and faced harsh treatment and public backlash upon assuming office. Now the Congressional Black Caucus is bipartisan and boasts a membership of more than 40 lawmakers. Just the election of the first African American president alone has altered the electorate, particularly on the Republican side in southern states still grappling with a history of slavery and segregation. Unfortunately, the short-term effect has been to exacerbate polarization. But as barriers are broken, society gradually accepts new norms.

President Obama has had his political problems compounded by his groundbreaking election. The backlash to his victory caused the legitimacy of his presidency, citizenship, religious belief and patriotism to be called into question. In the future, if another African American is elected president, he or she will face less hostility from certain elements of the electorate simply by not being the first to break such a barrier. Cultural change moves the issues and tinkers with the electorate. When cultural change occurs, it can temporarily increase polarization, but in the long term it serves to remove social issues of particular disagreement from political discourse.

Think of the social progress occurring in this country right now despite government dysfunction! Recent expansion of civil rights, equal protection and equal opportunity for all Americans has been dramatic. Thirty seven states have legalized gay marriage, most within the last few years. Additionally, gay men and women have achieved a rollback of policies that prevented their military service, or ability to adopt children, or attend religious services. Regulations on illegal drugs and the public’s views towards penalties for drug use, particularly marijuana, have shifted radically.

Religious belief is waning overall in the United States with fully one third of adults under thirty claiming no religious affiliation. Many of the thorniest social values disagreements are rooted in fervent religious belief and legitimate questions of religious values in secular life. However, as the percentage of religious Americans wanes, so does the power of religious voters to influence policy in the electorate. Issues like access to abortion procedures, gay marriage and social values disagreements that have fomented some of the ugliest political rancor may become obsolete relics as one generation passes the torch to another.      

Secondly, demographic changes may alter the political landscape significantly. One cause of political dysfunction in American politics is power of incentives. When both parties feel they can capture the levers of power in every election, the incentives for them to cooperate or even find common ground are significantly diminished. Political power in the legislature has changed hands more in the last twenty years than in the previous era of near one party control of Congress. Both parties can win elections because both parties have electoral coalitions that can deliver victory. But demographic shifts can alter or erode coalitions over time and have an impact not just on elections but on policy platforms.

Two groups that have been staunch supporters of the Democratic Party are growing: Hispanics and the young. First, on the generational shift, 60% of young voters between the ages of 18 and 29 favored President Obama over Governor Romney in the 2012 election. A corresponding number of elderly voters favored Governor Romney over President Obama. The problem for Republicans is that according to studies like this one by economists Ethan Kaplan and Sharun Mukand, political affiliations tend to stick from an early age. As a more liberal young electorate grows, the older generation that forms a crucial element of the Republican electoral coalition will decline.

Secondly, the share of Hispanic voters in the electorate is growing rapidly, but Republicans are having difficulty making inroads into this community. Between now and 2050, 20 states will become majority-minority in terms of total population and 12 of those states will be majority-minority in eligible voters. Significant demographic shifts like these can cause two things to happen: affected parties must change their platforms to appeal to a broader audience and reduce marginalization, or stick to their original positions and accept a semi-permanent minority position in government. Either way, government function would improve.

The final reason to believe that our system of government is not hopeless is the most important failsafe in our democracy: the power of the public to force action. Certainly we are lacking the political leadership within government to make changes to our political system that would improve functionality. That is true of both parties, and that cannot reasonably be presumed to change any time soon. But Yglesias’ doomsday scenario assumes that the American public itself will allow the political system to fail. As a country, we may not agree on much, but across the board Americans hold dear to our hearts the Constitution and the government it created. Even in times of deep polarization, the American public can force politicians to act together. History shows us that the public, sufficiently unified, can overcome entrenched norms in our political system.

Julian Zelizer discusses LBJ’s success recently at the Aspen Institute.

In the historian Julian Zelizer’s recent book, The Fierce Urgency of Now, he argues that although President Lyndon Johnson’s legislative skill was an important element of civil rights and Great Society legislation of the 1960s, the true catalyst for the massive societal change wrought by LBJ was the large scale public outcry in favor of action that created large liberal majorities in Congress. Those majorities, backed by significant public engagement and pressure, allowed President Johnson to act so decisively and demonstrated that the federal government could take on major social and public policy obstacles that had stood for nearly a century.

At other moments, even in recent history, overwhelming public support for a particular party has “unstuck” government and allowed for major legislative initiatives to become law. One obvious example is the Affordable Care Act. President Obama campaigned in 2008 in large part on providing affordable health insurance to the millions of uninsured Americans, a goal for the Democratic Party dating back to Harry Truman. By gathering massive public support behind his platform, President Obama, with a large majority in Congress, was able to enact major legal changes to one of the largest sectors of the American economy. There is every reason to believe this could happen again in the future. The American public, when sufficiently focused and unified, still holds ultimate sway over the political system. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the American public stands idly by while two centuries of constitutional democracy is dismantled.   

Winston Churchill once said that America always does the right thing after exhausting every other option. The obvious truth is that our Madisonian democracy relies on compromise to function, and right now there is almost none to be had. Polarization in the electorate, reflected in Congress, limits our government’s ability to deal with pressing issues without executive action exceeding legal authority. Basic functions of Congress like investing in roads and bridges or keeping our economy from defaulting seem overly difficult. Political rancor is very ugly and the campaigns seem both never-ending and unable to deliver on promises. In the short term, the only relief for this reality comes in the form of desperate, last-minute, stopgap measures. The disillusionment of Yglesias and others with government is understandable. However, they underestimate the ability of American society to change, reinvent itself and adapt. As this nation changes, so to does the electorate and the government.