The US government shutdown highlights the democratic shortcomings in America’s political system. Blame has been cast on many from fringe members of the Republican Party to America’s presidential system itself. While things likely won’t get any better soon, some small changes can save American democracy in the long run.
Much more important than the economic impact from the shutdown is what it means for American democracy. There are two principles that deserve mention. In a recent opinion piece inthe Washington Post, Anne Applebaum argued that the Republican party is endangering American democracy by refusing to fund the government because they do not like Obamacare. Abblebaum mentions that Obamacare was passed by both bodies of Congress, signed into law by the President and upheld by the Supreme Court. The Republicans are not only willing to shut down the government in an attempt to defund Obamacare, but are placing their opposition to Obamacare above the legitimacy of America’s democratic institutions and processes. A related principle was highlighted by Matthew Yglesias in a recent article in Slate, where he highlights the work of the late political scientist Juan Linz. Linz argues that the presidential system itself is flawed, that there is no democratic mechanism to resolve disputes between the legislative and presidential branches. In this light, it is not the Republicans who are the problem but the system itself. It is designed to breed conflict that is difficult to resolve. Linz focusses on the problems that Latin American countries have had with presidential systems and the good fortunes of parliamentary systems in Europe where the executive and legislative branches are unified in a coalition.
Does the current crisis really mean a democracy deficit in America? The answer is yes, but it won’t always have to be this way. The current crisis could only be the tip of the iceberg. While cooler heads prevailed and the default crisis was averted, it was only a temporary fix. Bad precedent is being set on many levels.
Aside from tearing up the constitution and switching to a parliamentary system (which has its own shortcomings) what changes can be made to prevent this type of suicidal conflict between executive and legislative branches again?
Three small but significant reforms need to be implemented. Limiting gerrymandering, eliminating caucuses, and having term limits will be enough to prevent suicidal conflicts between the executive and legislative branches in the future. While many are dismayed at the Tea party Republicans, they should be reminded that their actions are rational. They are doing what their constituents want them to do. Many Republicans are forced into extreme measures because if they make pragmatic decisions they will lose a primary election to someone who is willing to take extreme measures. Bob Bennett’s 2010 senate primary loss in Utah is an example of that. This has happened in part, due to gerrymandering where congressional districts are drawn to maintain party power. While the majority of America is very much purple, gerrymandering has turned congressional districts into bright red and bright blue districts where extreme candidates are able to come to power. This is a problem that will never be completely solved, but if gerrymandering can be reduced the impact would be significant. While gerrymandering is a problem, it is not as big a problem as some have claimed. The USA is naturally divided into politically different districts. Urban and rural districts are very different and gerrymandering will not change the effects of urban sprawl and urban decay. This is why the next two items also need to be addressed.
Second, caucuses need to be eliminated. A caucus is different from an open primary vote, in that members need to be physically present at the entire caucus to cast their vote. This is in essence democracy by meeting. This increases the amount of commitment for those wishing to participate. In a caucus they have to plan on attending a multi hour meeting with a public vote where as a typical primary vote is just that, a vote which can take 5 min and be done in secret. This means that party activists and extremists are more likely to participate than moderates. In Utah where Bob Bennett was ousted for Mike Lee, it was a caucus system that enabled it.
Third, term limits should be passed into law both at the senate and house levels. Having some of the members not up for reelection would be healthy for the political climate. Politicians who do not have to worry about reelection would then worry about what is best for the country and about being on the right side of history. They would be more willing to take moderate stances as they would be buffered from interest groups, party leaders, and the sways of public opinion.
These changes are small, but will be difficult to implement. Few politicians will be willing to support term limits, as it would mean their own exit from politics. The caucus and primary system, along with the drawing of congressional districts is done at the state level and would have to have 50 states pass reforms, a rather unlikely feat. A better solution would be to have the federal government take over these responsibilities, this would be hard to accomplish given the current political climate.
America is in the midst of a serious crisis. The democratic institutions have failed to ensure a functioning government for the second time in 20 years. A default crisis is at hand. The legitimacy of the legislative process has now been rejected by the Republican Party, a very worrisome precedent. This has caused some to blame the Republican Party while others to blame the presidential system the US has. In reality, the truth lies in the middle. Fortunately, small but important changes can produce significant improvements in American democracy. If America can reduce the impact of gerrymandering, eliminate caucuses, and pass term limits this will hopefully be the last time democracy fails in America.