Monday, April 23, 2012

America is a vetocracy, not a democracy

Apr 23, 2012

by Thomas L Friedman

Does America need an Arab Spring? That was the question on my mind when I called Dr Frank Fukuyama, Stanford professor and author of The End of History and the Last Man.

Dr Fukuyama has been working on a two-volume opus called The Origins of Political Order, and I could detect from his writings that his research was leading him to ask a very radical question about the United States' political order today, namely: Has America gone from a democracy to a "vetocracy" - from a system designed to prevent anyone in government from amassing too much power to a system in which no one can aggregate enough power to make important decisions at all?

"There is a crisis of authority, and we're not prepared to think about it in these terms," he said. "When Americans think about the problem of government, it is always about constraining the government and limiting its scope."

That dates back to our founding political culture. The rule of law, regular democratic rotations in power and human rights protections were put in place to create obstacles to overbearing, overly centralised government. "But we forget," Dr Fukuyama added, "that government was also created to act and make decisions."

That is being lost at the federal level.

A system with as many checks and balances built into it as ours assumes - and requires - a certain minimum level of cooperation on major issues between the two parties, despite ideological differences. Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, which was a hugely powerful force compelling compromise between the parties, several factors are combining to paralyse our whole system.

For starters, we've added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult - such as senatorial holds now used to block any appointments by the executive branch, or the Senate filibuster rule, requiring a 60-vote majority to pass any major piece of legislation, rather than 51 votes.

Also, our political divisions have become more venomous than ever. As former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold once remarked, at the rate that polarisation is proceeding, partisans will soon be demanding that consumer products reflect their politics: "We're going to have Republican and Democrat toothpaste."

In addition, the Internet, the blogosphere and C-Span's coverage of the workings of the House and Senate have made every lawmaker more transparent - making back-room deals by lawmakers less possible and public posturing the 24/7 norm.

And, finally, the huge expansion of the federal government, and the increasing importance of money in politics, have hugely expanded the number of special-interest lobbies and their ability to influence and clog decision-making.

Indeed, the US increasingly looks like the society political scientist Mancur Olson wrote about in his 1982 classic The Rise and Decline of Nations. He warned that when a country amasses too many highly-focused special-interest lobbies - which have an inherent advantage over the broad majority, which is fixated on the well-being of the country as a whole - they can, like a multi-limbed octopus, choke the life out of a political system unless the majority truly mobilises against them.

To put it another way, says Dr Fukuyama, America's collection of minority special-interest groups is now bigger, more mobilised and richer than ever, while all the mechanisms to enforce the will of the majority are weaker than ever. The effect of this is either legislative paralysis or sub-optimal, Rube Goldberg-esque, patched-together compromises, often made in response to crises with no due diligence. That is our vetocracy.

The Financial Times columnist Ed Luce notes that if you believe the fantasy that America's economic success derives from having had a government that stayed out of the way, then gridlock and vetocracy are just fine with you.

But if you have a proper understanding of US history - so you know that the government played a vital role in generating growth by maintaining the rule of law, promulgating regulations that incentivise risk-taking and prevent recklessness, educating the work force, building infrastructure and funding scientific research - then a vetocracy becomes a very dangerous thing.

It undermines the secret of our success: A balanced public-private partnership.

"If we are to get out of our present paralysis, we need not only strong leadership but changes in institutional rules," argues Dr Fukuyama. These would include eliminating senatorial holds and the filibuster for routine legislation and having budgets drawn up by a much smaller super-committee of legislators - like those that handle military base closings - with "heavy technocratic input from a non-partisan agency like the Congressional Budget Office", insulated from interest-group pressures and put before Congress in a single, unamendable, up-or-down vote.

I know what you're thinking: "That will never happen." And do you know what I'm thinking? "Then we will never be a great a country again, no matter who is elected."

We cannot be great as long as we remain a vetocracy rather than a democracy. Our deformed political system - with a Congress that's become a forum for legalised bribery - is now truly holding us back. THE NEW YORK TIMES

Thomas L Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

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