Is American democracy dysfunctional?


With the release of the president's budget, Washington has once again descended into partisan squabbling. There is in America today pervasive concern about the basic functioning of our democracy. Congress is viewed less favorably than ever before in the history of public opinion polling. Revulsion at political figures unable to reach agreement on measures that substantially reduce prospective budget deficits is widespread. Pundits and politicians alike condemn gridlock as angry movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party emerge on both sides of the political spectrum, and partisanship seems to become ever more pervasive.

All this comes at a time of great challenge. Profound changes, as emerging economies led by China converge toward the West, will redefine the global order. Beyond the current economic downturn, which is surely the most serious since the Great Depression, lies the even more serious challenge of the rise of technologies that may well raise average productivity but displace large numbers of workers. Public debt is running up in a way that is without precedent except in times of all-out war. And a combination of the share of the population that is aged and the rising relative price of public services such as healthcare and education pressures future budgets.

Anyone who has worked in a political position in Washington has had ample experience with great frustration. Almost everyone involved with public policy feels as I do that there is much that is essential yet infeasible in the current political environment. Yet context is important. Concerns about gridlock are a near-constant in American political history and in important respects reflect desirable checks and balances; much more progress is occurring in key sectors than is usually acknowledged; and American decision making, for all its flaws, stands up well in global comparison.

It is a commonplace that the missing center makes political compromise impossible. Many yearn for a return to what they imagine as an earlier era when centrists in both parties had overlapping opinions and negotiated bipartisan compromises that moved the country forward. Yet fears about the functioning of our government like those expressed today have been recurring features of the political landscape since Patrick Henry's 1791 assertion that the spirit of the revolution had been lost.

It's sobering to consider the degree of concern about paralysis that gripped Washington during the early 1960s when the prevailing diagnosis was that a lack of cohesive and responsible parties precluded the clear electoral verdicts necessary for decisive action. While there was a flurry of legislation passed in the 1964-66 period after a Democratic landslide, what followed were the cleavages associated with Vietnam and then Watergate, all leading to President Jimmy Carter's famous declaration of a crisis of the national spirit. Whatever the view today, there was hardly high rapport in Washington during the term of Ronald Reagan. President Bill Clinton worked hard to establish rapport and compromise with a Congress controlled by the opposition only to be impeached by the House of Representatives after a bitter struggle.

Intense division and slow change have been the norms rather than the exceptions. While often frustrating, this has not always been a bad thing. Probably there were too few not too many checks and balances as the United States entered the Vietnam and Iraq wars. By my lights and that of many others, there should have been more checks and balances on the huge tax cuts of 1981, 2001 and 2003 or on unpaid-for entitlement expansions at any number of junctures. Most experts would agree that it is a good thing that politics thwarted the effort to establish a guaranteed annual income in the late 1960s and early 1970s or the effort to put in place what would today be called a single-payer healthcare system in the 1970s.

The great mistake of the gridlock theorists is to suppose that all progress comes from legislation and that more legislation consistently represents more progress. While these are seen as years of gridlock, consider what has happened in the past five years. The United States moved faster to contain a systemic financial crisis than any country facing such a crisis has moved in the last generation. Through all the fractiousness, enough change has taken place that without further policy action, the debt-gross domestic product ratio is expected to decline for the next five years. Beyond that the outlook depends largely on healthcare costs, but growth there has slowed to the rate of GDP growth for three years now, the first such slowdown in nearly half a century. At last, universal healthcare is in sight.

Within a decade, it is likely that the United States will no longer be a net importer of fossil fuels. Financial regulation is not in a fully satisfactory place but has received its most substantial overhaul in 75 years. Most public schools and those who teach in them are for the first time evaluated on objective metrics of student performance. The place of gays in American life has been profoundly altered with their marriage coming to be widely accepted.

No remotely comparable list can be put forth for Japan or Western Europe. Yes, change comes rapidly to some of the authoritarian societies of Asia. But it may not endure and may not always be for the better. Anyone prone to pessimism would do well to ponder the alarm with which the United States viewed the Soviet Union after Sputnik or Japan in the early 1990s. It is the capacity for self-denying prophecy of doom that is one of America's greatest strengths.

None of this is to say that we do not face huge challenges. The challenges, though, are less of getting to agreement where the answer is clear than of finding solutions to problems like rising inequality or global climate change, where the path is uncertain. That is not a problem of gridlock - it is a problem of vision.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013.

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Hell yes it is!!

4 ( +6 / -3 )

The problem with U.S. Democracy is that it isn't a democracy at all, it is a plutocracy. Take the recent move to implement better background checks on firearms. With 90% public support the measure failed. Why? Simply put it wasn't in the interests of big business, and their bought and paid for senators and representatives voted with their wallets, not their consciences or in the interests of their constituents.

At the end of the day this is the problem. Business won't allow progress on key issues like the deficit because any solution will inevitably mean higher taxes for businesses and the wealthy.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

the problem with all current democracies is professional politicians. they get elected for promising to spend money whether they have it or not, regardless of whether it is good for society as a whole or not. anything to stay in power.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

We need more political parties. The two-party system only makes ideological divides more bitter since to win more votes for yourself, you only have to make the opposition and their platform look as evil and undesirable as possible. If we could get to the point where even three parties were equally powerful and had relatively equal opportunity to gain representation, we would see much less gridlock and much better, centrist compromises coming out of Washington.

We can only hope.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

All democracies are flawed. The people that end up in charge are the best at lying, cheating, and stealing. The only solution is private property anarchy.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

America is well along the road to becoming a totalitarian regime on the lines of the USSR. But this time it's not going to be an iron curtain, it's going to be steel.

Its cries of democracy and Freedom are a joke.

There are two American governments these days. One you see and can vote for and the other you don't and can't.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Sorry but we have never had a democracy. A democracy would require every American to vote on everything the government does, every policy and every law.

We claimed to be a republic, that is with elected representatives to did what their citizens wanted. Of course we have never really had that either.

As stated elsewhere we have had a plutocracy where what laws get passed depends on who bribes the most congress people. As often said we have the best government that money can buy. The bribes make the $300,000+ salary we pay them look like pocket change. Money comes to our politicians by box full. If you have not bribed you congressman , then he doesn't listen to anything that you say. It has bee this way for at least 150 years, if not longer.

Note in the original constitution, if you were not a white male landowner, you were not allowed to vote. Most Americans did not own land back then. If you owned slaves each of your slaves gave you a 2/5 of a vote more. So if you owned 2,000 slaves that gave you an extra 200 votes. So slave holders out voted everyone else. don't worry though they don't actually teach real history any more, nor even the theory of how government works, and certainly never taught how it actually works. Instead we just spout the mantra of Democracy, without the slightest idea what that would actually be.

Note that the government successfully ignores what the majority of the citizens say that they want.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Mr. Blackwell is quite wrong about the 2/5 rule during slavery (a practice legal in many countries at the time.) the 2/5 rule referred to population calculation for the number of congressmen from a state. The slave owner did not "vote" the votes of his slaves. Even in "slave stated" slaveowners were a minority of the population.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

It is the way it is. And it is that way because most people are stupid. Americans live in the safest and most prosperous times they have ever experienced, contrary to what the popular media may say. Since such is the case, politics has adapted by creating various crisis to keep itself relevant. The American population is divided into two groups, each opposed to the other, and this division is fomented by crafty politicians in order to make one half fear the other. People who are afraid are people who can be controlled.

Gay rights, religious fundamentalism, gun control, abortion, drugs, immigration, etc. All of these "social issues" are the tools which are used by politicians to generate campaign money, and motivate groups of people to vote. Stupid people focus their attention on social issues while the powers-that-be can do what they want without interference. Some people care more about gay marriage, or prayer in schools than they do about the staggering national debt, or the impending collapse of the social security system.

I often hear people say "don't vote for republicans!", or "don't vote for democrats!", not realizing that voting for parties and not people is the reason why the system is such a mess. I am a registeted independent, I hate both parties equally. I vote for whom I think is the best (or least bad) on the basis of their experience, not because of their looks, or their speeches.

If people could stop fearing and hating each other, and could instead focus on the real problems society faces rather than politically-motivated distractions following the principle of "divide and rule", these things might actually get done. Instead, people waste their time marching in the streets over non-issues while they are tied up more firmly with red tape, and the tax code approaches 12,000 pages containing upwards of 70,000 regulations.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Yes, as many had pointed out the US governmental system is turning into a plutocracy ever since the court had ruled that corporation entities are also considered as citizens and their interest needs to be heard. This idea connecting with vast amount of donation had become the tipping point where now individual opinion is snuffed out by a wad of cash.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

@Bertie. No country is perfect, but America is pretty good.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

Very dysfunctional indeed, especially recently.

Best solution, let the states decide on what they want since the US is still a federal republic, market forces will then shape the best structure for the country as a whole.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Is American democracy dysfunctional?

Not quite, but it's getting there.

With Guantanamo and laws like the Patriot Act in place, you could hardly call the U.S.A. a democratic country.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

In America they have the best politicians money can buy. That is not a democracy.

When I was young, I learnt how bad life was behind the iron curtain: you were always spied upon there, you had no real privacy. People the government did not like were sent to prison without trial.

Now in the U.S. the government wants access to all emails and computer action. People are sentenced without trial. People are spied upon. If all this is done in the name of democracy, that democracy is dysfunctional.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Was it ever functional?

2 ( +3 / -1 )

There is in America today pervasive concern about the basic functioning of our democracy.

The USA is not a democracy and never has been, it is a Constitutional Republic. The idea that the USA is a democracy is part of the propaganda designed to tear down the strength of the USA and lead it down the path to socialism and eventually communism as outlined in The Communist Manifesto.

0 ( +1 / -1 )


America is well along the road to becoming a totalitarian regime on the lines of the USSR. But this time it's not going to be an iron curtain, it's going to be steel.

Its cries of democracy and Freedom are a joke.

There are two American governments these days. One you see and can vote for and the other you don't and can't.

Both you and yabits always crack me up. America is not, never was and never will be a totalitarian nation, where you come up with these things amazes me. And you want to compare it to the USSR?? ROFL What does Freedom mean to you? Doing everything you want as you please at will. Even the US has rules, Freedom doesn't give you the GREEN LIGHT to do whatever you want, whenever you want. I have been to many countries and as an American, I enjoy my freedom quite immensely. I have no idea as what you are talking about.

Was it ever functional?


0 ( +1 / -1 )

With Guantanamo and laws like the Patriot Act in place, you could hardly call the USA a democratic country.

I am quite content with the PA and glad that Biden did something right, for once. I have no problems with it. I am not a criminal, so what do I have to fear. I also support Guantanamo. I support it and ANY measures to keep my country safe. If you are not a terrorist or a criminal, you have nothing to worry about. And NO, I am not a that believes in conspiracy. I leave that to Moore and Stone.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Justice, Democracy, and Freedom do not exist perfectly except in the ideal; all that exists is a constant battle to move towards those goal, to hold ground and if lucky make some progress against the opposite trends: injustice, totalitarianism, and oppression. The US is a work in progress, and that's a good thing.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Not only is it dis-functional, its the worlds most oppressive regime.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

With both parties in the pockets of big business and special interests it's hard to call it a democracy at all. More like republican Rome.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

not one single government in the world is probably worthy of labelling itself democracy. Open for discussion since representative democracy is one way of organising it but still puts the real power in the hands of ... well not a seleced but an elected few in this case. Long way to go for humanity if at all it ever gets the point, see i dont discriminate, i hate everyone equally lol

0 ( +0 / -0 )


I have no problems with it. I am not a criminal, so what do I have to fear.

The problem with that attitude is that undermines the need for the 4th and 14th Amendments, and some would even argue the 2nd and 5th Amendments. I prefer "I am not engaging in criminal activity, so what I do is none of the government's business."

But getting back to the main topic, our political system is dysfunctional. Critical voter fraud, big business grandfathered in on regulations they lobby for to put their upstart competitors out of business, spending other people's money to pay yet more people to vote for you, etc., it's a mess and in bad need of reforms and audits.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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