During the summer’s controversies over the debt ceiling and U.S. credit downgrade, there was a lot of talk about the “dysfunctional” American political system. Obviously, a country that has to play a game of chicken with its reputation for full faith and credit isn’t working very well. But what exactly is the source of this dysfunction? If it is a systemic dysfunction, is there something about it that can be fixed?
One possible answer is that the problem doesn’t lie in the system, but in the underlying polarization of American society, which is divided over basic governing ideology and increasingly angry in its public discourse. There has been a huge literature on polarization and its sources, which is blamed on electoral districting, residential self-segregation, an ideologically compartmentalized media and the like.
To the extent that the problem resides in the underlying society, there’s not much that can be done in terms of institutional tinkering to make the system more functional. The problem is one of political culture, in this case the absence of a dominant culture.
However, there’s plenty of evidence from polling data and other sources that Americans are actually not nearly as divided as the common perception would have it. The political scientist Morris Fiorina and his collaborators have gone so far as to call the idea of polarization a myth;1 on many issues from the environment to stem cells to the budget one can find solid majorities in favor of various forms of pragmatic compromise. If politicians were responding to median voters as they are supposed to, we shouldn’t have a problem.
A well-designed democratic political system should mitigate underlying social disagreement and allow the society to come to a consensus on important issues. There is plenty of evidence, however, that the U.S. political system does exactly the opposite: It actually magnifies and exacerbates underlying conflicts, and it makes consensual decision-making more difficult.
The reasons are deeply embedded in the U.S. Constitution. Americans rightly take pride in their system of checks and balances, which were deliberately tailored to limit the power of centralized government. Despite the appearance of a strong executive implicit in a presidential system, there are very few issues on which an American President can act on his own authority. The President must share power with two houses of Congress, the judiciary and a multi-tiered structure of state and local government. Indeed, the American political system is at the far end of the scale in terms of the number of “veto players” it empowers—that is, actors who can independently block or modify government action. This is nowhere more true than in the making of the Federal budget.