The Debt Crisis and the Governance Crisis

July 13th, 2011  |  Published in Politics  |  1 Comment

With Mitch McConnell now desperately trying to pull the Republicans back from the brink of a sovereign debt crisis, I’m honestly a little surprised that there hasn’t been more discussion of Matt Yglesias’s argument that the debt ceiling fiasco signals the incipient collapse of the American system of government. He’s been making this argument on the blog for a while, and now he’s made it at greater length in the American Prospect. Basically, the idea is that:

  1. In a Presidential system like the U.S.’s, the President and congress have independent sources of political legitimacy and an independent ability to obstruct the operation of the government.
  2. For this reason, the system is unstable: if the two branches are controlled by rival parties, they can bring the system to a standstill. Most other countries that have adopted American-style political systems ultimately either saw a military coup or a presidential abrogation of the legislature’s power.
  3. The reason this didn’t happen in America is because we didn’t have cohesive, ideological parties, and so it was possible for Presidents to make compromises and deals with congressional factions.
  4. Now we have disciplined, ideological parties. Or rather, we have one such party, but that’s enough. The result is constant gridlock.

This has some things in common with the argument I made about contagious delegitimation in the American political system. My point there was that the government’s inability to function was making various branches of government increasingly unpopular, and that this was further inhibiting their ability to do anything. Yglesias provides a structural account of just why this is happening.

It isn’t really all that surprising, either–as Yglesias points out, the American system of government pioneered modern bourgeois democracy, and the founders didn’t really have other examples to work from. The constitution is like the operating system for the country’s political and legal system, and we’ve basically been running Democracy 1.0 (with 27 patches to address major vulnerabilities) since the 18th century. No wonder our politics now work about as well as a computer that’s still running Windows 95. Other countries have moved on to better designed, less buggy implementations, and eventually we’ll have to do so as well. Maybe people are just unwilling to accept that at some point, the U.S. system of government could become so dysfunctional that it would actually fall apart. Maybe liberals are just too terrified to contemplate what would happen if we had a constitutional convention in this political environment.

Or maybe people just don’t know what to say about a proposal that’s so far outside the parameters of what everyone else is talking about. There’s another piece like this that I also think isn’t getting enough attention: Dean Baker’s argument along with Ron Paul that the Fed should destroy the 1.6 trillion dollars of government bonds that it owns in order to get around the debt ceiling crisis. I’ve seen remarkably little discussion of this, even though it’s, you know, Dean Baker arguing alongside Ron Paul that the Fed should destroy 1.6 trillion dollars in bonds. Maybe people don’t love wacky and counter-intuitive #slatepitches as much as we thought.

But when the American constitutional order disintegrates, don’t say you weren’t warned.

Responses

  1. Paul Meyer says:

    September 28th, 2011 at 6:17 am (#)

    I have been interested in the dysfunctional structure of American government for 15 years. A couple of observations.

    Yglesias ponders about the exceptional longevity of the American system. However, perhaps said notion of longevity fails to acknowledge the Civil War as a reboot of the system. Wasn’t Barrington Moore who extolled the failure of the American ruling classes from preventing the Civil War as one of the great unanswered questions of political science. Dysfunction, BM, look into it.

    The observations about the ideological (is there a verb for “to make more coherent”?) of the parties is tricky. My thought is the pressure for ideological control co-exists alongside the tendency to co-operate pragmatically with the opposition to simply turn the wheels of legislation. When ideology is in the ascent it is the minority party where the trend is most pronounced and especially if obstructionism serves its political interest. So I don’t think we can conclude the existing polarization reflects an underlying structural shift – however that does not mean to imply that said polarization won’t not spark off a systemic crisis.

    Yes, the US would be better off with a parliamentary system. In fact, I think the chief block to social democratic politics in the US is the electoral system and structure of government, not culuture, not history etc.

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