Can US Politics Be Fixed?


The most likely outcome of the next election in the US is stalemate. I think it probable that Barak Obama will win reelection and the Republicans will hold on to their majority in the House of Representatives. Things will, of course, be significantly different if Romney wins and has a Republican majority in one or both of the Congressional chambers. However, the power of incumbency gives both Obama and the Republicans in Congress an advantage.

This situation, with the House Republicans refusing to budge from their collective commitment to reactionary opposition, highlights the flaws of the American system. The constitutional provisions establishing competing authorities in the US, lauded in every high school civics class as “checks and balances”, assures that the US can only be governed if the different branches of government cooperate.

This worked reasonably well in the recent past, at least for white males in comfortable circumstances. The flaws were not noticed when parties were neither disciplined nor ideologically homogeneous. Governing coalitions could be built by a president, even when faced with a legislature dominated by the opposing party, because both parties were undisciplined and contained members of centrist, or at least flexible, convictions. These days, the parties are more homogeneous and deeply polarized. Nothing gets done if Obama gets reelected without “coattails” – that is, without bringing in a majority of Democrats to govern with him. Paralysis will continue. It is the American version of what the French call “immobilisme”.

If Romney wins, he will most likely have a friendly majority, but it will be a government by people who claim to abhor government, at least as a force for human progress. A Romney victory will, furthermore, be the result of an ocean of money furnished by wealthy donors who will expect their interests to be served.

The tension between democratic aspirations and moneyed interests is a persistent problem in most countries, and perhaps most spectacularly in the United States. Campaign expenditures for the presidential candidates will certainly exceed a billion dollars. Candidates for lesser offices will also be seeking, and spending, more money than those in any other putative democracy.

The quantum leap this year in money chasing candidates – and candidates chasing money – is due to a landmark decision of the US Supreme Court called “Citizens United” (named for the plaintiffs). This decision by the five Republican-appointed judges outlawed limits on corporate and interest group contributions. However, the difference between 2012 and previous years is only a difference in degree, not in kind. American politics has been awash in campaign contributions for many, many years.

Contributors traditionally claim that they are not seeking to bribe politicians, but merely to gain access so their points of view can be heard. This is hardly credible: it is a wink and a nod to probity. A quick glance at the US tax code, with its special exceptions and incentives, reveals the manifold gifts politicians have bestowed on their financial supporters. The weakened regulatory institutions, which, among other things, led to the financial collapse of 2007-08, offer another example of the consequences of US legislators pliant before money.

Can American politics be fixed? In one sense, they already have been: whoever wins, some moneyed interest will be served, if not by the president, certainly by Congress. But in a less cynical sense, I think two reforms inspired by practices in Europe can make a huge difference. These two reforms can make the US less dependent on money, and more governable.

The first reform is inspired by practices in most European democracies. The reign of money can be significantly reduced if television time were free to all candidates and paid political advertising were made illegal. The main cost of campaigns in America is the cost of television advertising. In a country as large as ours, the most practical way to reach voters is via broadcast television.  All candidates need to raise huge sums of money to pay for this advertising and this is what leads them to court special interests. The “Citizens United” decision only aggravated this sad reality.

The situation did not change with the arrival of Facebook.  While social networks are helpful and low cost, they do not obviate the need for television advertising. All candidates will use social networks, but those who can pay for lots of television advertising still have the advantage. Thus, if television were free—and after all, the airwaves belong to the public—candidates would not be spending the bulk of their days trying to raise money and sucking up to whomever is likely to donate same.

A second reform, based on practices in the UK and elsewhere, could also reduce the level of polarization and thus make America more governable. Currently, America’s state legislatures define the borders of electoral districts. The majority party in each legislature takes care to design the districts so as to assure the electoral success of its candidates. The result is that most districts are “safe seats”. Congressmen and women need not worry about losing in the general election. The main threat comes in the primary election, by which each party names its candidate for the seat. Voters in a primary election to tend to be more ideological and less forgiving than the broader electorate of the general election. This is especially true for the Republicans whose tenets have become akin to religion. An elected member of Congress can be punished in the next primary if he or she strays from the True Path: compromise is taken as apostasy and is punished. The effect over time is a highly polarized Congress.

If districts were designed, as in Britain, by independent boundary commissions rather than by partisan legislatures, the tendency toward polarization might be significantly reduced. The elected members of Congress might be more will to cooperate across party lines. In a separation of powers system like the United States, institutional cooperation might make the country governable again.

I argue for these two simple reforms: free television and independent boundary commissions. Surely this is a modest proposal. But what is the likelihood of such reforms occurring? Sadly, zilch, zero, nada.

The US Supreme Court is unlikely to condone free television time. The Court has time and again equated donating money with free speech. They are unlikely to tolerate any prohibition of spending for television ads.

And even if the Court were more sympathetic, incumbent members of Congress are unlikely to champion a “leveling of the playing field”. Incumbents have the fundraising advantage over unknown challengers, This is especially true of those incumbents (virtually all) who have already proven themselves subservient to moneyed interests.

What about non-partisan boundary commissions? This is imaginable, but unlikely. California has already moved in this direction, but California is an unusually progressive state. It is hard to imagine political parties giving up this advantage elsewhere.

Sadly, the betting money is not with me. Things look bleak for who prefer democracy and a more perfect Union. The probable outlook for US politics is continued paralysis and possible catastrophe. And most likely, both.  

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