By Paolo von Schirach
January 19, 2014
WASHINGTON – America is broken, and there is no easy fix. I am talking about America’s institutions, now essentially unworkable. And I do not believe that the remedy will come with the next elections. I do not believe that the next president will have the authority and therefore the prestige and the latitude to forge a new consensus. As I said, the system is broken. Actually, a better way to say it is that the political and cultural premises that made it possible for an extremely complicated constitutional arrangement to work have vanished.
A weak government
Let me explain what I mean. The system created by the American Constitution is so complex that it may appear designed for failure. The Founding Fathers were mostly concerned with the preservation of liberty, rather than with the creation of a strong government that “would get things done“. Hence the “separation of powers“. The president does not govern on the basis of a parliamentary majority, as it is the case in other republican constitutions adopted later on by other democracies. The president needs the voluntary concurrence of Congress in order to get anything done. By the same token, the Congress cannot enact any legislation without a nod from the White House.
Without getting into too many details, the long and the short of a system in which it is a lot easier to block legislation rather than passing it, is that it can succeed only if we assume the will and the ability to reach compromise. When you have independent powers that can easily veto what the other side wants to do, the only way to get anything done, assuming diverse and in may instances opposing views, is compromise.
However, compromise assumes that among elected leaders and policy makers who very often retain a veto power on what the other side wants there will always be a significant core group who, regardless of party, can and will identify a shared national interest and agree on decisions that are congruent with its advancement.
The almost banal conclusion is that America can be governed successfully only if there is a “Center” that can work as the interpreter of values and priorities shared by most Americans. The compromisers and the deal makers occupy this ideological and political center. As the interpreters of widely shared beliefs, they can work across party lines and they can forge broad enough coalitions so that policies deemed to be “good” by most are advanced through the necessary legislation.
No centrists in charge means gridlock
Lacking this ideological and political center, the US Constitution is an ideal instrument to prevent almost anything from happening, except for the rare cases in which one faction will hold all key levers of power.
Look at the present situation. The Democratic party successfully reconquered the White House in 2012, while controlling the Senate. But the Republicans control the House, while the Democrats in the Senate lack the 60 member plus “super majority” that is necessary in most cases to prevent successful obstruction by a determined minority. Lacking the will to compromise, the outcome of this political “balance” is gridlock. Without the concurrence of the House, nothing gets passed. However, the House alone cannot pass anything either.
And so we are stuck. And I do not believe that the next elections will solve this. The solution has to be in an honest attempt to revisit our values and beliefs with the goal of recreating a broad enough common ground that in turn would provide the basis for political compromise. As banal as this may sound, compromise is almost impossible between mutually exclusive world views.
Belief in the ability to agree on facts
The Founding Fathers recognized the dangers of ideologically based factionalism. But they were the children of the “Age of Light”. They instinctively believed in the liberating and that the same time unifying power of knowledge-based reason acquired through unbiased learning. Indeed, fact based, empirically tested political pragmatism is the not so secret ingredient of America’s survival and indeed of its remarkable success as a modern, inclusive, forward-looking and altogether optimistic society. “Whatever the issue of the day, we can and will find common ground to tackle it through realistic and effective measures“.
The center is gone
Well, this is not true anymore. The “Center” is gone. Ideology, bias and prejudice have become dominant. We no longer have a shared political culture. We have several political cultures that are reinforced by the proliferation of tools created for the sole purpose to reassure the believers that whatever they already believe in is the right idea, and the only right idea. Long ago the media ceased to see their mission as information. No, now media outlets are mostly about prepackaged and openly flaunted ideological bias. And the believers drink only from the fountain that on a daily basis will reconfirm all their prejudices.
In all this, a complex US Constitution that could work as the instrument to deliver the common good only provided the existence of a vibrant center has become instead the ideal weapon for guerrilla warfare. Today, lacking the ability to carry the day, the name of the game is to prevent the other side from winning. And the US Constitution provides many tools to those who are determined to block anything they dislike.
Redefine the center
What can be done about all this? The only solution is for people of good will to come together and rethink the fundamentals that should inspire a modern, complex society. We need to redefine and agree on what the new “Center” is. I do not believe that most Americans are unable to see it, once it is presented to them without animus or prejudice.
However, if I am wrong, if it is indeed the case that we have lost the ability to identify and then work together for identifiable and believable centrist goals, then this noble experiment in self-government, an experiment that created a forward-looking society that became in many ways a model for the world, may be over.