The Paralysis of the American Political System
It is a feature of US political life that its formal political institutions are nearly paralyzed. Very little can be accomplished, and what is accomplished usually happens under threat of imminent disaster. This is a significant feature of the current political system, and its consequences are far-reaching both for those inside the US and those outside of it. It also lends itself to some strange ironies in political life. For instance, many Americans on the left oppose the proposal to launch a military strike against Syria. This is because US intervention rarely leads to a positive outcome—a fact that hardly needs to be explained to Colombians. However, the right-wing Tea Party in the US also opposes a strike against Syria. This is not because of its effects on the Syrians, but simply because President Obama is for the strike. The idea that one must be opposed to a policy simply because the other side is for it lends itself to political paralysis, and yet is a feature of contemporary institutional politics.
It is important to understand why this paralysis exists. I will try to offer an initial explanation here. Although it is easy to try to reduce the explanation to a simple one, it is in fact the product of several interacting factors.
The first factor, perhaps the most important one, has to do with the gerrymandering of political districts. Gerrymandering occurs when voting districts are divided up in such a way as to benefit the dominant party. For instance, suppose that Republicans want to dilute the effect of the black vote, which generally leans heavily toward the Democrats. And suppose that a particular geographical area that is allotted three districts (that is, they will have three representatives elected to House of Representatives) has a population that is 60% black and 40% white. Also suppose that when it comes time to divide the area into specific districts, the Republicans control the state legislature and so control the dividing process. What will likely happen is that the district areas will be drawn in such a way as to heavily concentrate the blacks in one area, while giving the whites a comfortable majority in the other two areas. This will serve to ensure that the whites control two districts while the blacks control only one, even where they are a majority.
Now it often happens that in order to divide things up this way, the map of districts has to be drawn in a very unusual way, which is exactly what happens. If you look at a map of House districts in the US, you will see that they are often drawn in a way that seems to make no sense. This is because of gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering has led to the rise of right-wing legislators, like those of the Tea Party, in many districts. It has also led to a situation in which legislators are concerned only with a very narrow segment of the population, that segment that voted for them. Rather than having to appeal to a diverse group, legislators appeal only to that band of voters that can get them elected. This, in turn, makes it hard to agree on policy at the national level, since compromise will not help them get re-elected.
The effects of gerrymandering are reinforced by the role that money plays in electoral politics. Many Americans were outraged at the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, where the Court ruled that there could be no restrictions on political expenditures by corporations or labor unions. People were concerned that corporate money would then flow into electoral campaigns, overwhelming the voice of ordinary citizens. It is certainly true that more money, and more corporate money, has flowed into these campaigns. But the decisive money is not coming from corporations. Rather, it is coming from extremely wealthy individual donors. As reported in the New York Times, the lion’s share of money donated to the electoral campaigns in 2012 is from individual donors, not corporations. In fact, 44% of the over $6 billion in campaign costs were funded by the top 0.1% of donors.
This fact is important politically. Corporations are generally conservative in their political bent, but they also like to hedge their bets. They will contribute to a campaign, but will often either contribute to campaigns on both sides or will at least not contribute so much to one side that they will be marginalized if the other side wins. They are not, in other words, ideologically rigid. Individual donors, by contrast, particularly right-wing ones like the Koch brothers, tend to be ideologically extreme. If one combines this ideologically extreme funding with gerrymandered districts, what results is the rise of a class of right wing politicians with no interest in compromise. This is exactly what we have currently in Congress, and especially in the House of Representatives.
In addition to gerrymandering and ideological funding, there are two other factors that should be mentioned. The first is the polarization of different parts of the country. This is the phenomenon of red states (Republican) and blue states (Democrat). People in the US are defining themselves less by their common membership in a country and more by the area—blue or red—in which they live.
The second is the effect of all this on individual citizens. Because electoral politics has become so polarized and so saturated with money, it is difficult for individuals to feel that their actions have an effect on electoral politics. As a result, people feel hopeless and alienated from their political institutions. That has resulted in some positive movements, for example the Occupy movement. But it has also resulted, and I think this is more prevalent, in political despair. People feel that they cannot affect the country’s political culture, and so they withdraw from any political participation or resistance.
So far, what I have described is the rise of an uncompromising political class, particularly on the right. However, that does not account for the full story of political paralysis. If gerrymandering and political contributions are moving the House of Representatives to the right, that movement does not reflect the country as a whole, which tends to be more centrist. So, for instance, although the House of Representatives periodically threatens to defund the US government unless the Obama health plan is repealed, President Obama has been re-elected for office. The concentration of Democratic voters on the East and West coasts and the northern Midwest of the US ensure that, in national elections, Democrats will likely be competitive if not victorious. In any event, someone elected by national vote will likely be much less ideologically right wing than those who occupy the House of Representatives.
The result of this is paralysis. There is very little, if any, common ground for political compromise. When faced with an emergency, such as the complete shutdown of the government, there have so far been slight compromises made. However, there is a question of how long this can continue, and in any case the compromises made under those conditions are only for a narrow range of policy. Moreover, as the Obama administration has displayed, whatever compromise there is tends to happen when the centrists move toward the right, since, for reasons that should now be clear, the right wing legislators have no electoral motivation to move to the center.
There is no reason to believe that this situation will change any time soon. We can expect US politics to limp along from crisis to crisis. At the time I write this (September 14), the paralysis has not led to an all-out crisis. But there is no guarantee for the future. Should the Congress decide, for instance, not to raise the debt ceiling and allow the US to default on its debts, it is difficult to say what the fallout for the rest of the world will be. On the one hand, some may take comfort in the idea of US political paralysis. After all, when the US political system is functioning smoothly, this is usually bad news for much of the rest of the world. On the other hand, the US remains a central element in the world economic system. When its political institutions cannot function at all, there may be an entirely different set of problems that result. And without a vibrant left to call attention to these problems and to resist the current political alignment, I am pessimistic about the prospects for US politics in the foreseeable future.