Dysfunction obscures the more meaningful problem

It’s awfully difficult to defend the American political system right now. I suspect if a pollster asked a representative sample, “Do you believe the political process in the United States is effective or badly broken?” the results would be entirely one-sided.

And the respondents would have a point. Political norms that have existed for generations have been thrown out the window. We’re struggling to pay our bills, not because we lack the money, but because political gridlock won’t let us write the checks. Pressing crises like climate change can’t be addressed because our politics won’t let us act. Faced with an unemployment crisis, many of us have given up on policymakers trying to make things better, and are left to hope they won’t make things too much worse.

Our federal courts are a mess because new judges can’t be confirmed. Our Senate is a mess because of procedural abuses with no modern precedent. Our House is a mess because it’s been overrun by mad men. Our executive branch is struggling with a series of hostage strategies, in which the president would rather pay the ransom than watch the country burn.

Given all of this, the conventional wisdom is that the process and the political institutions themselves are a dysfunctional mess, a fear reinforced by the months-long nightmare over the debt ceiling. Jonathan Bernstein makes a compelling argument that the conventional wisdom isn’t paying close enough attention.

For one thing, as of now it appears that everyone successfully managed to get to a deal. The fact that both sides fought hard up to the deadline isn’t really a sign of a flaw in the system; it’s more or less what you would expect.

But I do think there’s something broken, and it isn’t the system: it’s the GOP. The problem isn’t that they’re very conservative. Even a party with policy preferences to the right of Rand Paul could, in theory, manage to bargain with even a very liberal Democratic Party. The problem, rather, is that the GOP’s incentives are skewed. Rather than caring about policy, they appear to care more about symbolism, such as a Balanced Budget Amendment, than about actual policy. Rather than caring about cutting the best deal they can get, they appear to care more about proving their loyalty to the cause (they refused to deal on health care even though so doing might have gotten them more of what they wanted). This requires them to oppose Democratic presidents regardless of what it means in substantive gains or losses.

The result is that Republicans wind up following the lead of hucksters and talk show hosts, even when it leads them to strange places. And that, not anything inherent in Congress even in polarized times, winds up yielding a dysfunctional legislative process.

I’m very much inclined to agree. American politics can be exasperating, a characteristic that’s defined the system since its inception, but it’s still perfectly capable of functioning and problem solving. Indeed, it’s capable of doing great things, even when power is divided between the parties, as has been common, off and on, for several decades.

The institutions, in other words, don’t necessarily have structural flaws. With competent, well-intentioned officials in place, the process can be entirely effective. It’s worked before, and can work again. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with how the United States does its business.

But the system breaks down when one of the parties goes berserk. We’re not in a broken-down car; we’re in a perfectly good car with a crazy person in the passenger seat recklessly grabbing the steering wheel at inopportune times.

To be sure, the parties are supposed to disagree, and there’s nothing wrong with Democrats and Republicans fighting for very different principles and agendas. In some respects, it’s helpful to voters to have sharp distinctions between the parties, better clarifying the directions available to the country, and ideally making the electorate’s choices easier.

When one of two major parties, however, succumbs to madness — say, threatening to crash the global economy on purpose without a multi-trillion-dollar ransom — the basic political norms that oil the political machine becomes impossible.

As Bernstein concluded, “It’s only now, and during the years of unified Republican control, that we are seeing long-time observers complain about a broken Congress or the worst Congress ever. But it’s not Congress that’s broken. It’s the Republican Party.”