Sunday, April 22, 2012

Down With Everything

by Thomas L. Friedman

Does America need an Arab Spring? That was the question on my mind when I called Frank Fukuyama, the Stanford professor and author of “The End of History and the Last Man.” Fukuyama has been working on a two-volume opus called “The Origins of Political Order,” and I could detect from his recent writings that his research was leading him to ask a very radical question about America’s political order today, namely: has American 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 any important decisions at all?

“There is a crisis of authority, and we’re not prepared to think about it in these terms,” said Fukuyama. “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 all put in place to create obstacles to overbearing, overly centralized government. “But we forget,” 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 — indeed 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 paralyze our whole system.

For starters, we’ve added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult — such as senatorial holds now being used to block any appointments by the executive branch or the Senate filibuster rule, effectively 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 Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator, once remarked to me: At the rate that polarization 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, America today increasingly looks like the society that the 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 multilimbed octopus, choke the life out of a political system, unless the majority truly mobilizes against them.

To put it another way, says Fukuyama, America’s collection of minority special-interest groups is now bigger, more mobilized 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 suboptimal, 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, the author of the new book “Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent,” 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 American history — so you know that government played a vital role in generating growth by maintaining the rule of law, promulgating regulations that incentivize 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 Fukuyama. These would include eliminating senatorial holds and the filibuster for routine legislation and having budgets drawn up by a much smaller supercommittee of legislators — like those that handle military base closings — with “heavy technocratic input from a nonpartisan 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 country again, no matter who is elected.” We can’t 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 legalized bribery — is now truly holding us back.


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