Gridlock Is a Constitutional Feature

Peter Aldhous has a nice article up at Medium about the persistence of polarization in American politics. I particularly recommend it because he begins with journalistic/reformist claim that gridlock has gotten out of control but ultimately draws on political science research to note that not only do most party reform efforts fail, but that: a) polarization is a persistent and endemic feature of our political system, and b) the U.S. Constitution was designed to encourage gridlock.

To some, the political scientists quoted in the piece (including me) will come off as a depressing lot, unable to address the main concern (polarization) expressed by so many political observers. But if political scientists are failing to answer the question, it may be because the wrong question is being asked. Polarization is not really something to be “fixed.” Rather, it’s a sign that people are debating important issues and coming to different points of view. And it’s been the condition for much of American history. It’s those rare moments of relatively weak parties (e.g.: the mid-20th century) that present problems, such as a political system that avoids debate on key problems (like civil rights) and elections that are substantively meaningless contests that produce no changes in public policy.

Relatedly, gridlock is part of the design of the U.S. Constitution. Separation of powers was intended to make it difficult for a faction, even a large one, to change the laws. There are other governing systems with fewer veto points, such as parliamentary systems, that allow for easier lawmaking, even in times of great party polarization. We just don’t happen to live under such a system.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.