Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Question for Fallows: Can the U.S. "muddle through" to structural change?

As someone who's mused at length over whether the United States retains its capacity for self-correction, I lapped up James Fallows' panoramic and even-handed exploration of "How American Can Rise Again" (or not). Fallows' broad points:
  • Worries about American decline are a constant in our culture and a sign of societal health.

  • Current problems, e.g., the structural deficits and infrastructure decay, are serious but manageable.

  • More endemic and threatening than the problems that require policy solutions is our current political paralysis -- bequeathed to us by a Constitution that has not proved sufficiently amenable to amendment and that has stuck us with steadily less representative government:
Fallows sees no clear path to fixing the paralysis caused by the nonrepresentative nature of the Senate (where Wyoming has the same clout as California with 1/69 the population), the fiercely Gerrymandered Congressional districts, the multiple layers and local government, etc.   His conclusion is really a non-conclusion: our only hope for bringing about sufficient constructive change is to "muddle through." That is, we need leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower who "worked within [the system's] flaws and limits...that is the bravest and best choice for us now."

That conclusion is a bit circular, since Fallows' core question is whether the United States retains the capacity to muddle through, given the dysfunctions of the political system.  Perhaps the missing link is a discussion of whether the U.S. can "muddle through" to incremental systemic change, i.e., change in the political system.

While we do seem to be stuck with the non-representative Senate, the Senate has not always been as sclerotic as it is now. While I'm wary of getting rid of the filibuster (and regard it as the guardian of health care reform), it can be scaled back -- perhaps with change projected 6-10 years into the future as Ezra Klein has suggested. Individual senator holds on bills  nominations could also be curtailed. As for the Electoral College, there's the National Popular Vote Bill, passed so far by five states, which stipulates that all of the state's electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide-- but only takes effect when enacted by states possessing a majority of electoral votes.

It's hard to separate flaws in the structure of our government from flaws in our political discourse. Republican behavior since the Clinton years has created -- or greatly exacerbated -- many of the procedural dysfunctions in Congress, and Republican intransigence is rendering legislation that makes any serious attempt to solve national problems almost impossible. As Paul Starr has pointed out, the pending health care reform is composed almost entirely of ideas floated by Republicans over the past 50 years -- but "negotiations" were the sound of one hand clapping, with conservative Democrats fulfilling the rightful role of the Republicans while Republicans simply schemed to kill any bill at all.

The current decay of the Republican party is dangerous.Without two parties capable of governing, we are in danger of a democratically elected crackpot takeover in the wake of some major trauma like a second economic collapse or a terrorist attack.  But then, the problem of Republican extremism is related to the structural problems generated by the Constitution -- which, as Fallows points out, have grown worse over time, as population disparities between states have grown more extreme. If Congress were more representative, the Republicans couldn't get anywhere playing exclusively to the tea party fringe.

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