Let’s learn from this inevitable crisis, which results from flaws in our system

Summary: While the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis probably ends in days or a few weeks, the lessons we learn from it can help us better manage the similar crises that lie ahead. Failure to learn and respond to these might have ugly consequences during the next decade. Today we look at one of the two vital lessons.

This is part two of three post series.

  1. Most of what Democrats say is wrong about the Republicans’ recent actions in Congress, 1 October 2013
Blasting caps
Just like the Tea Party Movement



  1. Introduction to our problem
  2. A brilliant but superficial analysis
  3. A deeper analysis
  4. Other articles about the crisis
  5. For More Information


(1)  Introduction

While the shutdown and debt crisis probably ends in days or a few weeks, the lessons we learn from it can help us better manage the many crises that lie ahead. The two great lessons:

  1. Our government’s structure is exceptional because it is flawed, and so copied by few other nations.
  2. The two Tea Party and Evangelical factions of the GOP have allied, becoming a powerful force in US politics. This crisis shows that they have become a disruptive due to their alienation and unwillingness to compromise.

Our Constitutional structure of a divided Executive and Legislature — with the Legislature further divided into two houses — allows potentially destabilizing political gridlock. The somewhat non-ideological basis of American parties for most of our history (with other strong divisions, such as regional) hid this. But now the parties have resorted themselves on more logical lines, sharpening the competition and making compromise more difficult.

Perhaps after two centuries we should worship the Founders less and strive to improve on their work. We can start by asking why most new nations adopt parliamentary systems, instead of copying ours.

The second factor is the maturation of US political system into ideologically coherent parties, with both having an extreme acting as shock troops. The Republicans, as usual, do this much better than the Democrats — building the Tea Party movement into a powerful grassroots activist network. It’s the logical evolution of our system, remarkable only in that it took two centuries.

The first is like dynamite (the subject of today’s post). Tomorrow we discuss the second, which is like a detonator. The combination can produce a ugly crisis, which the current one foreshadows. But the problem is structural. The Founders hated and feared “factions”, but made few provisions in the political system for their management. Its emergence seems inevitable during a crisis, eventually.

(2) A brilliant but superficial analysis

Shutdown’s roots lie in deeply embedded divisions in America’s politics“, Washington Post, 5 October 2013 — Excerpt:

The government shutdown did not happen by accident. It is the latest manifestation — an extreme one by any measure — of divisions long in the making and now deeply embedded in the country’s politics. At some point, presumably, the current standoff will end. The federal government will reopen, the ceiling on its borrowing power will be lifted and some stalled legislation could pass. Some sense of normalcy will return to official Washington.

But it also could be a new normal, as confrontation remains commonplace and true compromise rare. Meanwhile, the ideological, cultural and political differences that led to this moment of extreme governmental dysfunction are almost certain to shape elections and legislative battles in the near term.


Atomic bomb explosion
Crisis: the alternative to reform


That is the conclusion of politicians, political strategists and scholars who have been living with a deepening red-blue divide in America that they say has made this era of politics the most polarized in more than a century. However bad it may have seemed in the 1990s, the last time there was a shutdown , or after the contested presidential election in 2000, or a decade ago during a divisive war, the fundamentals are worse today.

… In the states, the red-blue divisions have for now produced governments largely controlled by one party or the other. In Washington, they have produced a divided government and could continue to do so for some years to come. Nothing in politics is permanent, but Democrats now enjoy some advantage in the electoral college competition, while the alignment of congressional districts gives Republicans the upper hand in controlling the House. Divided government has resulted in a breakdown in governance.

… “I don’t really see a way out of it in the very short term,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who has written extensively on polarization. “We’re stuck in it. There was a time when it was possible for the parties to work together, because the divide between them was much smaller. Now we’ve gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible.”

… Over the past two decades, the percentage of self-identified Republicans and Democrats who support their party’s presidential nominee has ticked higher and higher. In the past three elections, according to American National Election Studies data cited by Jacobson, 89 or 90 percent of Republicans and Democrats backed their party’s nominees. Three decades ago, those percentages were considerably lower.

What made 2012 more significant was the degree to which voting in House and Senate elections followed a similar pattern. In each case, nine in 10 partisans backed their party’s candidates for either House or Senate races.

The 2012 election represented a high point for trends that have increased polarization. In the 1980s, another period of divided government, a quarter of the electorate voted for president one way and the House or Senate another way. In 2012, only about 11 percent of voters in the ANES studies cited by Jacobson said they split their tickets.

… What’s important about this is that there is now almost no intersection between the coalition that elected the president and the one that elected the majority in the House. Members of Congress have far less incentive to compromise with a president of another party if they know they are not dependent in any significant way on that president’s supporters.

“If you look at the people who elected Obama and the people who elected the Republicans in the House, there’s very little overlap,” Jacobson said. “They owe their victories to very different constituencies, to folks who are pretty divided on every political issue.”

… At the time of the last shutdown  Wasserman said, not quite one-third represented districts where the Republican vote was 10 points or more above the party’s national average. Today, more than half of them are in such districts.

But it is not just that Republican districts have become redder. Democrats’ districts are bluer, as well. In 1995-96, the median Democratic seat was about 6.7 points more Democratic than the national average. Today, that figure has jumped to 11.2 points. Wasserman notes that the partisan leanings of the median Democratic district actually rose more than in the median Republican district.

… Ideological polarization in the House is wider than it has ever been. The last time it approached today’s levels was after the Civil War, in the late 19th century. Nolan McCarty, a political science professor at Princeton University, has helped chart those changes, along with the scholars who first created the index, Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University.

Calling the period during Reconstruction “a highly polarized time,” McCarty said: “Our measures today are far worse than we observed then. We’re almost at the point where we can’t measure further increases.”

Today, there is almost no overlap between the voting behavior of the most conservative Democrats in the House and the most liberal Republicans. That’s in part because there are few ­moderate-to-conservative Democrats and ­moderate-to-liberal Republicans left in the chamber.

… Much of this has resulted from well-documented changes that have made each party more homogenous than in earlier eras. Two shifts account for many of these changes. The first is the realignment of the South, which has become solidly Republican. The second is the realignment outside the South with the decline of the liberal wing of the Republican Party in the Northeast and Midwest.

… Many polls in the past few years have charted the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats in their attitudes about government’s role. Republicans have shifted more to the right than Democrats have shifted to the left, but on both sides passions are stronger than they were two decades ago.

… The absence of a center in today’s politics significantly complicates coalition building. “How do you build a coalition from the center out when there’s no one in the middle?” Abramowitz asked. “Reaching across the aisle means reaching pretty far.”

(3)  A deeper analysis

The shutdown is the Constitution’s fault“, Dylan Matthews, Washington Post, 2 October 2013 — Read it in full! Here is the opening:

The government is shut down. Two million federal workers are having paychecks delayed, and 800,000 of them might never be repaid at all. Food safety inspections are on hold. Kids are being refused experimental treatments for cancer.

So whose fault is it?

You can say it’s the fault of House Republicans, who refuse to pass a continuing resolution that gives them more in the way of spending cuts than they wanted just two years ago, but which the Senate’s passed already and President Obama has said he’ll sign.

If you’re Ted Cruz, you’ll say that it’s the fault of Obama and the Senate for not being willing to trade the government staying open for Obamacare getting defunded.

If you’re a congressional process nerd, you’ll blame a budget process that has stopped working, if it ever did work, and which asks Congress to take far more actions every year than it can be expected to take in its currently hyper-polarized state.

But the deeper answer is that it’s James Madison’s fault. This week’s shutdown is only the latest symptom of an underlying disease in our democracy whose origins lie in the Constitution and some supremely misguided ideas that made their way into it in 1787, and found their fullest exposition in Madison’s Federalist no. 51. And that disease is rapidly getting worse. …

((5)  For More Information

(a)  FM reference pages, a guide to other posts about these matters:

(b) Other post about the shutdown:

(c)  Other posts about deep flaws in America’s political structure

It is a better system, which is why most new nations copy their system, not ours

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

This piece is cross-posted from Fabius Maximus with permission.