Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2012/ 27 Mar-Cheshvan, 5773
If voters don't want gridlock, why do they keep voting for it?
By Robert Robb
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | If the American people are fed up with gridlock in Washington, why do they keep voting for it?
In his acceptance speech, President Barack Obama said: “We are not as divided as our politics suggest.”
That’s a noble sentiment, but a mistaken analysis. We are as divided as our politics suggest. Moreover, those political divisions are hardening as they become increasingly reinforced by powerful cultural forces. Political sentiment today is closely associated with ethnicity, religiosity, marital status and geography.
To steal and bastardize the president’s signature refrain: There is a red America. And there is a Blue America. They are very nearly the same size and the purple America is decidedly small.
That’s a recipe for gridlock. Gridlock we’ve had. And gridlock there will continue to be.
Politicians from both sides lie to us by pledging to work in a bipartisan fashion, when their definition of bipartisanship is that the other side capitulates. And we lie to ourselves by claiming to want bipartisanship while continuing to elect politicians for whom there is zero rational expectation that they will practice it.
Our system of government was set up to make governmental action difficult. But it also was designed to work without parties or factions. Government was to act only where there was broad consensus. But the assumption was that broad consensus on important matters could be obtained.
Today, the spirit of party and faction rules. Even on important matters, it’s not realistic to expect that a broad consensus can be obtained. The more important the matter, the more likely we are to be split 50/50.
Parliamentary systems are designed to facilitate governmental action even when the government has been elected by a slim plurality.
In addition to the unity between the executive and legislative branches that precludes divided government, parliamentary systems impose discipline among rank-and-file members of the majority. If the government loses a vote on an important matter, that probably means holding an election at which the member could lose his job. So, the cost of gumming up the works is high.
In the modern American system, every member of Congress is a political entrepreneur. For most of them, the cost of gridlock is no more than having to lie in the next election about wanting bipartisanship.
There is also greater accountability in a parliamentary system for voters. The government they elect, however slim the margin, will actually be able to get something done. In the United States, the promises and positions of candidates don’t have to be taken too seriously. In a parliamentary system, they do.
In intellectual circles, there was a minor boomlet for a parliamentary system in the United States in the 1970s. The strong presidency of Ronald Reagan put an end to it.
Obviously such a radical transformation isn’t going to happen. But while contemplating two more years of the unpleasant standoff between an ideological Democratic president and an ideological Republican House, it’s an interesting intellectual diversion.
As long as we’re waxing quixotic, how about abolishing the Electoral College? It was also designed to operate without party or faction and be truly deliberative. Voters were to select people of good judgment at the local level, who were to get together and deliberate about who might be the best person in all the land to run the national government. Obviously, that function is long gone.
It was also designed to protect the interests of small states. And since small states would have to approve a constitutional change to directly elect the president by popular vote, that was thought politically impossible.
These days, small states can’t be feeling protected by the Electoral College. Unless they are a battleground state, they have to be feeling neglected.
In 2000, the winner of the Electoral College lost the popular vote. For a while, it looked like there might be a repeat this year.
In a country as closely divided politically as this one, that will remain an uncomfortable possibility. Perhaps direct election of the president is a reform whose time has come.
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