Democracy in the Rear View Mirror.

            Sometimes foreigners have a clearer view of the strengths and weaknesses of a country than do the natives.[1]  Hence it is interesting that some foreign observers fear for the future of the United States, but for reasons different from those which now preoccupy many Americans.  For six years, Americans have been focused on conjectural threats to democracy.[2]  Some foreign observers, however, perceive a real threat from democracy, at least as it now operates in the United States.  Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore, told an American journalist that there exists a widespread perception that “you do not have a bright future because the world is changing too fast for a system like the United States, a democracy with checks and balances.”[3] 

            The checks and balances created by the Constitution divided powers between three co-equal branches of government.  That system seems to have served the United States well for more than two hundred years.  What’s different now? 

            Extreme political polarization lies at the heart of the matter.  The problem is social and human, rather than institutional.  Broadly, the country is split into deeply and unthinkingly distrustful factions that turn any policy issue into a battleground.[4]  The current Congress exemplifies the resulting institutional dead-lock.  Congress has a slight Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a 50-50 division in the Senate.  The Democrats can pass a small amount of legislation through the process called “reconciliation” because such bills can be passed with the Vice President breaking the tie.  All other bills in the Senate require a 60 vote majority to overcome a “filibuster.”  Use of the filibuster to block legislation has tripled over the last thirty years, with the result that Congress now passes about half as many laws.  Neither party wants to get rid of the filibuster just to pass its wish-list.  The other party will soon be back in power with a narrow majority will then ram through its own wish-list. 

            One solution attempted has been to expand the power of the Executive branch into the vacuum created by the Legislative branch.  After getting shellacked in the 2010 elections, Barack Obama developed a mania for executive agreements in place of treaties and regulations and rules written by bureaucrats in place of legislation.  Donald Trump used the same approach to block illegal immigration from Central America and to plaster China with tariffs.  Now the third branch of government, the Judiciary, has clapped a stopper on such tricks by invalidating the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to impose the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. 

            One example of short-sighted partisanship can be found in a bill intended to enhance competitiveness with China in hi-tech areas.  Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell threatened to block passage of the bill unless the Democrats drop a much-reduced version of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill.  The Democrats want to pass the latter bill to shore up their chances in the 2022 mid-term elections.  They may find common ground with the Republicans in putting short-term party advantage over long-term national interest. 


[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1848-1850) is the classic example. 

[2] For the Democrats, this means Donald Trump and the Deplorables.  For the Republicans, it means the Russia collusion hoax launched by the Clinton campaign and then taken up by an element within the FBI. 

[3] Greg Ip, “Gridlock Hamstrings U.S. on China,” WSJ, 7 July 2022. 

[4] On the futility of trying to craft an institutional solution to such social and human divisions, see Philip Williams, Crisis and Compromise: Politics in the [French] Fourth Republic (1966).