Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Constituional crackup

This is a talking dog book, more compelling for who is writing it than for what it says. Thomas E. Mann is a fixture at the Brookings Institution while Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. That is, these are a couple of Washington insiders who've concluded as, as they said in their title: It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. The US constitutional system of checks and balances makes it much too easy to for a cranky minority to derail majority initiatives and the Republican Party is malevolently unhinged.

Here, I'll pass it to them to say it:

… we identify two overriding sources of dysfunction. The first is the serious mismatch between the political parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. Parliamentary-style parties in a separation-of-powers government are a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution.

… however awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one to the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier -- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country's most pressing challenges.

This certainly isn't a novel insight to any of us frustrated progressives -- but it is pretty strong stuff from this oh-so-Establishment source.

This volume reminded me of California Crackup, a very similar book about the Golden State that I wrote about last year: great diagnosis, lousy suggestions for a fix. Like those California writers, Mann and Ornstein seem to cling to the notion that there's an unheard, moderate, centrist majority that just needs some systemic tweaks in some legislative rules and voting procedures plus better leadership from their betters to get the ship of state back on an even keel.

California actually points to a very different solution whose working out we're still in the midst of -- an emerging majority that is sick of being obstructed by reactionary, bigoted idiocy finally rises up and simply takes back the institutions of government. Democrats were hamstrung in Sacramento for decades, but the recent election finally left the Republicans under the one-third level in the legislature, meaning that more normal politics can be resume. This won't end conflict, but it will shift the working out of policy to between people who all want the state government to succeed -- Democrats of different flavors -- even when they differ on priorities and how to get there.

It didn't look as if this could ever happen in California, but the turnaround has begun. We'll find a way to get there nationally as the Republican Party becomes more and more a nasty southern rump of whining older whites. Something will give, impossible as that looks at the moment.


Rain Trueax said...

For a long time I have said that the Occupy movement had to go beyond the streets, which is just where the right wing power brokers want it to be and Occupy the places of government by getting elected and doing the work they claim to want. It's what the tea party did to our detriment. Now let's see if the left can follow through and convince enough voters that its way is responsible and makes sense for the long run. Basically it's about taking responsibility and glad to see California is showing the way.

janinsanfran said...

Yeah, it is not pretty, but a combination of outside agitation and inside the political system organizing has built a new working majority in California. It naturally remains precarious.

But I do think this points to a reality that most people elsewhere miss: California is about ten years ahead in a fraught demographic and political transition that holds promise as well as numerous perils. And if we can get through it, the rest of the country can too -- too slowly, unevenly, sometimes painfully. But people who want to make the country work for all of us who live here can seize the reins if we work hard enough.

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