Why is the US Political System So Gridlocked?

One review of the newspaper reveals to us a political system that has clearly become enormously dysfunctional. Most Congressional legislation is blocked by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. At the same time, much of the political proposals of the Democrats have been fairly limited in scope. Yet, the problems, which we have in our country are tremendously huge. A laundry list of problems was provided by Matt Miller, columnist for the Washington Post: 20 million Americans desiring full-time work, won’t be able to attain it; the wealthiest 400 Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of the population combined; half of all jobs pay less than $35,000 a year; 12,000 Americans die every year from gun violence; 1 in 5 children live in poverty; social mobility is declining; the biggest banks, which have contributed to the economic crisis, have become bigger than before after receiving their government handout in the form of bailouts and Fed low-interest loans; 50 million people lack health insurance (after the implementation of Obamacare, it will be half of that), while the health care system continues to be the most expensive in the world; carbon emissions continue to rise, which accelerates global warming and climate change; most Americans do not have enough retirement savings; and politicians in Washington are busy raising cash from the wealthy rather than address the political problems that affect us all.1 And despite all these problems, members of Congress are incapable to alleviate any of these problems, so that even the business community begins to complain about the political incapacity of Congress. This criticism had become very salient especially with regard to the debt ceiling debate, which harmed the financial interests of the elite investors. (Interestingly, when it comes to other issues like funding public schools or providing health care to more people- areas that affect most people more intensely- there has been very little uproar in public discourse. This clearly reveals the strong extent of inequality in this country, but more about it later.)

It will, therefore, be very pertinent to look at this issue of political gridlock in Washington, because Congress is the main institution, where expected political changes are supposed to take place. Why is there no possibility to surpass these partisan divisions? There are two main line of arguments that can be run in order to explain this gridlock. One deals with the procedural structure of the US political system and the other deals with the socio-economic polarization in the form of greater economic inequality. I will present both of these reasons, and find only the latter argument convincing, while disagreeing with the first argument.

The first argument claims that the Founding Fathers had intentionally devised a political system that would divide the legislative from the executive branch of government, i.e. Congress is seperately elected from the president. Congress may be run by Republicans, and the presidency may be run by a Democrat, so disagreement between the two branches of government exist by design. By the same token, there is a clear division between two branches of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate also has the special ability of blocking any legislation with a filibuster, which can only be overcome by a 60 member majority. So the system is apparently set up for failure, which fits well with the intentions of the founders, who thought that a concentration of power in either branch of government would lead to tyranny.

This argument may have some validity, but I do not find this procedural reasoning to be particularly convincing from a historical perspective. Even if the peculiar nature of the US political system allows a division of power, which reduces the ability of passing laws altogether (a problem other countries with parliamentary systems do not have), it still does not deal with why there was more/less gridlock at some times than in others. There were several fairly activist Congresses in history, such as during the Reconstruction era after the end of the Civil War led by so-called Radical Republicans, during the New Deal reform in the 1930s and during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. The decisive shift in the political system must have happened in the years after the Civil Rights era, when the Democratic southern states turned into Republican strongholds. Gerrymandering, which is the arbitrary drawing up of Congressional district for the benefit of whichever party was calling the shots in the respective state (especially in the case of Republican states), also became a more popular tool among policy-makers to sharpen the political divisions to higher levels.

There is now significantly less bipartisanship than back in the 1960s. From the viewpoint of political sociology, there have been several arguments made about how the voters must have shifted to the right or to the left, and so the political leaders follow the more extreme views of the public. But I actually find very little evidence for a massive shift in popular opinion about most political issues. Any kind of political theory that stresses the supposed changes in the political viewpoint of Americans too much is very much suspect to me. Some exceptions do exist with regard to social issues. A majority of American people now endorse gay marriage. But that is a far cry from socio-economic issues like inequality, health care or jobs, where most people have been consistently progressive. Gerrymandering and stronger political divisions do matter, and it is noteworthy that it is when the Republicans are in opposition that the veto points are the strongest. The Democratic majority was not nearly as intransigent to the Bush administration, which was Republican.

And now here comes the socio-economic aspect of the political narrative of gridlock, which is consistently neglected in public discourse, and it has a lot to do with the laundry list of problems enumerated above: economic inequality and political corruption. In my argument, there were political measures by businessmen to secure themselves more favorable tax policies. Businesses became free to invest anyplace in the world that pleased them and bypass any environmental or labor regulations that make political democracy and economic egalitarianism possible in the first place. Free trade policies, automation of production, and union-busting increasingly became the norm. Workers’ wages stagnated and in some cases declined. Rising corporate profits were reinvested back either into production abroad, or in financial investments, lately in housing, the future’s market and other commodities, enriching a group of investors and hedge fund managers, while reducing the financial security of workers and retirees, and eventually the whole economy (look at the global financial crisis since 2008).

Workers reacted very much divided to this shift in the political economy. They did not realize what was going on, and when they did realize it they reacted haphazardly. There had been long-standing institutional weaknesses in the US labor movement, which had mostly organized itself in terms of craft or in terms of the specific firm workers worked for. The lack of class solidarity among the US working class made it, therefore, very easy for employers to circumvent the working class, and use the political system for their short term gains. As income inequality increased, so did the cost of election. Because as the rich get richer, they will bid more for political campaigns, and middle and working class people, who are always deeply affected by policies, can not match this lobbying effort with equal interest or financial resources. Any resemblance of progressive politics has to be shelved given the fact that only the big spenders, who are friendly to corporate interests, have an opportunity to become elected. A few exceptions exist, but only if there is a strong grassroots effort that support the respective candidate. Without a strong, united labor movement it is also difficult to have more (small ‘d’) democratic priorities represented in Congress.

That is why I also think that even when Democrats are in power, there is enormous difficulty to get political measures across Congress. Democrats have to concede to so-called moderate, Blue Dog Democrats, who generally resist too many progressive policies, officially in order to tame the budget deficit (but really to hurt the poor). That was the whole campaign that president Bill Clinton ran on. But, nonetheless, I find it interesting that both parties have shifted to the political right, so that we may safely classify the modern Democrat as a moderate Republican, and the modern Republican as extreme right-winger. Progressive political forces are continuously marginalized. The few sane members in Congress, like Senator Bernie Sanders, always have the greatest difficulty to push for measures that benefit the mass of the American people.

I have no interest to simply bash the Republicans, though I have to say that the Tea Party phenomenon, which is almost entirely bankrolled by conservative billionaires, is peculiar to the Republican Party. It is right to point out that Republicans are more extreme in their views than Democrats, but it is also right to argue that both parties have shifted to the political right. But then this would presume that both parties would agree with each other, and then there could be no political gridlock. Well, it is not that simple either. There are some real diffferences between the political parties, but it is often a question of magnitude, and not one of overarching policy preferences. The Democrats want to cut spending programs a little bit (which hurts working people and the underclass), and raise taxes a little bit. The Republicans only want to cut social spending programs, and no tax rises. A more progressive alternative would be to demand significant spending increases financed by significant tax increases on the rich, the corporations, who sit on too much idle cash, and the investors, who speculate and lend it out rather than giving people access to resources in the form of wages and jobs. But that is currently a topic that is entirely taboo inside the Beltway, so it is a challenge to us, the public, to change the political picture

On a final note, I will argue that some powerful interests in this country might even prefer a stymied Congress. A stymied Congress is conservative by necessity. A bickering Congress won’t pass sweeping social legislation. This generally benefits businesses. It is not that Congress does absolutely nothing. Some spending programs for important political clientele will continue to receive federal funding, such as the military or agriculture. Companies will still benefit from very favorable tax policies, and the way that happens is through lobbying, which is a legalized form of corruption. It would be simply called ‘corruption’ in other countries. But that is the only effective way to secure resources from Washington. On the other hand, popular interests become ruefully neglected. It does not seem to matter how many children are drifting into poverty or how many workers have to remain unemployed under the current government, the political gridlock will continue to prevent any significant social reform from happening. Food stamps and Medicaid are on the chopping block, not really the tax breaks for the wealthy. That is really good for conservative interests. This strategy might backfire for conservatives, because Tea Party Republicans are pushing for no compromise on the debt ceiling. But historically we know that over the last few years, the Republicans have always voted for an increase in the debt ceiling even if it was in the last minute. So far, conservatives do not have to fear much of anything. The political gridlock still benefits that clientele, even if the whole economy is harmed by government shutdowns and more poverty, inequality and unemployment. The focus of change will not come from grand political speeches by presidential candidates, but from the actions of a determined public.

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