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Political Paralysis January 4, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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It should be obvious to anyone watching the political games in Washington and Sacramento that this country is virtually ungovernable. It is nearly impossible to pass legislation that will solve problems even when the public is solidly behind the legislation—health care reform is the obvious example.

The question is why.

Ezra Klein gets the description right. The problem is political polarization along with anti-democratic rules in the legislature.

Klein writes:

In California, passing a budget or raising taxes requires a two-thirds majority in both the state’s Assembly and its Senate. That need not pose a problem, at least in theory. The state has labored under that restriction for a long time, and handled it with fair grace. But as the historian Louis Warren argues, the vicious political polarization that’s emerged in modern times has made compromise more difficult.[…]

California is threatened with default because the minority Republicans refuse to vote for new sources of revenue. But, as Klein points out, many other states may follow California into default as well, which will put an end to the germinating economic recovery.

That raises a troubling question: What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?

If all this is sounding familiar, that’s because it is. Congress doesn’t need a two-thirds majority to get anything done. It needs a three-fifths majority, but that’s not usually available, either. Ever since Newt Gingrich partnered with Bob Dole to retake the Congress atop a successful strategy of relentless and effective obstructionism, Congress has been virtually incapable of doing anything difficult because the minority party will either block it or run against it, or both […]

These two problems get to the essential difficulties confronting the nation: There is no doubt that minority parties generally profit in elections when the unemployment rate is high. But given that reality, what incentive do they have to help the majority party lower the unemployment rate? Further out, there is no doubt that the majority party has an incentive to prevent a fiscal crisis on its watch. But what incentive does the minority party have to sign on to the screamingly painful decisions that will avert crisis?

As Matt Yglesias observes:

In most political systems, it doesn’t really matter that the minority has no incentive to help the majority. What the minority does is outline an alternate policy dynamic, try to make hay out of scandals, and generally wait in the wings to seize the opportunity to take over if the majority can’t deliver the goods. But the US political system actually affords the minority substantial opportunities to prevent the majority from delivering the goods.

At a time when the strange politics of the apartheid south led to low levels of congressional polarization this wasn’t a large practical problem:


But those days are long gone as the chart shows—parties today have largely coherent ideological commitments.

So what is the solution? The obvious suggestion would be less polarization and an end to the rules requiring supermajorities to pass legislation. But changes to legislative rules require legislative action which need the very supermajorities that prevent legislation from passing. The minority party has no incentive to change the rules that enable their obstructionist tactics.

And legislatures are politically polarized because the public is politically polarized.

One would think that multiple catastrophes would focus the attention of both legislatures and the public on finding solutions. But a decade of one catastrophe after another hasn’t produced anything like a consensus regarding political ideology.

This country simply does not work anymore. Whether Obama’s patient pragmatism can shift the political calculations just enough to break political inertia is anybody’s guess. We can hope, and hope is always useful.  But the evidence as  yet is not there.

One thing is clear. Liberals should not compromise their agenda (beyond the political trade-offs necessary to pass legislation.) To compromise the progressive agenda would be to capitulate to the defenders of the status-quo that created this mess which would guarantee another decade of disasters.

Our problems are not fundamentally economic. They are political problems which means only a fundamental change in values will enable a sustained recovery.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



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