The most telling moment of the recent standoff over talks to raise the American government’s debt ceiling came on July 22, when President Barack Obama called a press conference to announce that House Speaker John Boehner had backed out of the negotiations. “I’ve been left at the altar twice now,” Obama pouted. In case the image of the President as a jilted lover was not clear to everyone watching, he added that he had spent the previous day waiting for Boehner to return his phone calls.
The whole affair has left a lot of Americans in a state of bipartisan disgust, with citizens from all points on the political compass cursing out their elected representatives. Yet it doesn’t seem to have occurred to many people that there is something structurally flawed with a system that allows the head of just one legislative house to treat the supposed leader of the free world as his last choice for the senior prom. If there’s anything that needs cursing out it isn’t the elected politicians, but the constitution of the United States.
America is a mess. The economy isn’t growing, the job market is a wasteland, its infrastructure is crumbling. On any number of measures, from education to health care to technological innovation, the country is getting beat by up-and-comers in Asia, Scandinavia, and South America. But the real threat to America right now is not economic decline or technological stagnation—those are just the knock-on effects of a much deeper rot.
Political decay is a largely overlooked phenomenon. We tend to think of political development as a one-way ratchet from despotism to democracy, with very little in the way of backsliding. But history is littered with states that flourished and then fell, as their political infrastructure failed to adapt to new and increasingly urgent circumstances.
The American constitutional order rests on the belief that the biggest threat to liberty is the concentration of political power in one person or office. And so the founding fathers gave the new country an absurdly baroque system of checks and balances and of power-sharing between the various political branches. It was designed to dilute political power, but the reality is that the U.S. federal government has a difficult time doing anything much at all.
That’s fine if your big worry is the return of a tyrannical monarch. But despotism comes in many forms, and there is more to political liberty than simply wrapping the government in a straitjacket of constitutional restraints. Sometimes true self-government involves giving the state a free hand to push through an agenda that might be deeply unpopular in the short term, but is vital to the long-term flourishing of the society.
A handful of prominent writers have taken to talking up the virtues of strong government. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been arguing for a couple of years now that China’s political system is far better equipped to deal with climate change and to force the country into alternative sources of energy. In her recent book How the West Was Lost, the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo argues that a seven-year election cycle would make it easier for the government to identify problems and put in place more structural solutions without having to face the electorate. Heck, even American politicians recognize that sometimes the government needs to actually do something: one of the great accomplishments of the Bush presidency after 9/11 was to greatly strengthen the hand of the president on issues of national security and foreign policy.
A lot of pundits have been cheering the gunboat politics of the past few weeks as nothing less than democracy in action, with the final debt-ceiling deal read as some kind of healthy pragmatic compromise. While this involves deliberately interpreting the worst bugs in the country’s political software as its best features, the truth is that it is possible to have too much democracy. America’s elected representatives just expended an enormous amount of political capital wrangling over something that should have been passed with a nod months ago, while far more important matters went unaddressed. Worse, even conservatives admit that the Tea Party caucus got next to nothing for their efforts, despite making it clear they were willing to nuke the country’s credit rating over spending cuts.
Edmund Burke once wrote, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” He was talking about the French Revolution, in particular about the way the aristocracy of the ancient regime had so entrenched itself as a parasitic class that it had become completely unreformable. The only way to do a hard reboot of the French state was to cut off a large number of heads.
It’s hard to see a revolution coming to America. Yet it’s also hard to see that its political system has the internal resources to reform itself. The result, then, will be the steady rise of more agile and focused countries, while America settles into a long and drawn-out period of political decay. Right to the end, they’ll probably keep calling it democracy.