US debt: The rise of America’s vetocracy is true to the ideals of the Founding Fathers

In a system designed to empower minorities and block majorities, stalemate will go on

Share

The House Republicans’ willingness to provoke a government shutdown as part of their effort to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, illustrates some  enduring truths about American politics — and how the United States is an outlier among the world’s rich democracies. As President Obama asserted, America is indeed exceptional. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

The first way America is different is that its constitutional system throws extraordinary obstacles into the path of strong political action. All democracies seek to balance the need for decisiveness and majority rule, on the one hand, and protection against an overreaching state on the other. Compared with most other democratic systems, America’s is biased strongly toward the latter. When a parliamentary system like Britain’s elects a government, the new leaders get to make decisions based on a legislative majority. The United States, by contrast, features a legislature divided into two equally powerful chambers, each of which may be held by a different party, alongside the presidency. The courts and the powers distributed to states and localities are further barriers to the ability of the majority at the national level to get its way.

Despite this dissipation of power, the American system was reasonably functional during much of the 20th century, both in periods when government was expanding (think New Deal) and retreating (as under Ronald Reagan). This happened because the two political parties shared many assumptions about the direction of policy and showed significant ideological overlap. But they have drifted far apart since the 1980s, such that the most liberal Republican now remains significantly to the right of the most conservative Democrat. (This does not reflect a corresponding polarisation in the views of the public, meaning that we have a real problem in representation.) This drift to the extremes is most evident in the Republican Party, whose geographic core has become the Old South.

As congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have pointed out, this combination of party polarisation and strongly separated powers produces government paralysis. Under such conditions, the much-admired American system of checks and balances can be seen as a “vetocracy” — it empowers a wide variety of political players representing minority positions to block action by the majority and prevent the government from doing anything.

American vetocracy was on full display this past week. The Republicans could not achieve a simple majority in both houses of Congress to defund or repeal the Affordable Care Act, much less the supermajority necessary to override an inevitable presidential veto. So they used their ability to block funding for the federal government to try to exact acquiescence with their position. And they may do the same with the debt limit in a few days. Our political system makes it easier to prevent things from getting done than to make a proactive decision.

In most European parliamentary democracies, by contrast, the losing side of the election generally accepts the right of the majority to govern and does not seek to use every institutional lever available to undermine the winner. In the Netherlands and Sweden, it requires not 41 per cent of the total, but rather a single lawmaker, to hold up legislation indefinitely (i.e. filibuster). Yet this power is almost never used because people accept that decisions need to be made. There is no Ted Cruz there.

The second respect in which America is different has to do with the virulence of the Republican rejection of the Affordable Care Act. Every other developed democracy — Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, you name it — has some form of government-mandated, universal health insurance, and many have had such systems for more than a  century. Before Obamacare, our health-care system was highly dysfunctional, costing twice as much per person as the average among rich countries, while producing worse results and leaving millions uninsured. The health-care law is no doubt a flawed piece of legislation, like any bill written to satisfy the demands of legions of lobbyists and interest groups. But only in America can a government mandate to buy something that is good for you in any case be characterised as an intolerable intrusion on individual liberty.

According to many Republicans, Obamacare signals nothing short of the end of the US, something that “we will never recover from,” in the words of one GOP House member. And yes, some on the right have compared Obama’s America to Hitler’s Germany. The House Republicans see themselves as a beleaguered minority, standing on core principles like the brave abolitionists opposing slavery before the Civil War. It is this kind of rhetoric that makes non-Americans scratch their heads in disbelief.

But while the showdown over the Affordable Care Act makes America exceptional among contemporary democracies, it is also perfectly consistent with our history. US constitutional checks and balances — our vetocratic political system — have consistently allowed minorities to block major pieces of social legislation over the past century and a half. The clearest example was civil rights: For 100 years after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments, a minority of Southern states was able to block federal legislation granting full civil and political rights to African Americans. National regulation of railroads, legislation on working conditions and rules on occupational safety were checked or delayed by different parts of the system.

Many Americans may say: “Yes, that’s the genius of the American constitutional system.” It has slowed or prevented the growth of a large, European-style regulatory welfare state, allowing the private sector to flourish and unleashing the US as a world leader in technology and entrepreneurship.

All of that is true; there are important pluses as well as minuses to the American system. But conservatives beware: the combination of polarisation and vetocracy means that future efforts to cut back the government will be mired in gridlock as well. This will be a particular problem with health care. The Affordable Care Act has many problems and will need to be modified. But our politics will offer only two choices: complete repeal or status quo. Moreover, there are huge issues of cost containment that the law doesn’t begin to address. But the likelihood of our system seriously coming to terms with these issues seems minimal.

Some Democrats take comfort in the fact that the country’s demographics will eventually produce electoral majorities for their party. But the system is designed to empower minorities and block majorities, so the current stalemate is likely to persist for many years. Obama has criticised the House Republicans for trying to relitigate the last election. That’s true, but that’s also what our political system was designed to do.

Francis Fukuyama is Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. His books include ‘The End of History and the Last Man’

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game