The American party system is broken.
In recent decades the nation’s politics have become increasingly partisan, making compromise on big issues -- taxes and spending, the national debt, immigration, gun control, energy, and global warming -- difficult if not impossible.
The symptoms of broken government are most obvious in the House of Representatives, which can no longer govern because the institution’s majority party has become alarmingly extremist and unwilling to compromise. One-party congressional districts explain much of this partisanship: Only 17 percent of House Republicans elected on November 6 won with less than 55 percent of the vote -- the threshold indicating vulnerability in the next election. This number demonstrates that the only danger for most Republicans is in a primary, not a general election. And in today’s Republican Party, the surest way to lose a primary is to compromise with Democrats. (The same dynamic works to a lesser extent for Democrats.)
The result is two parties -- more true for Republicans than Democrats so far -- pushed to ideological extremes. For Republicans, this means a political party whose stratagems are to oppose all tax increases (the deal averting the fiscal cliff notwithstanding) and draconically cut spending. The GOP’s ultimate ideological goal is to eviscerate the welfare state constructed during the New Deal and historically supported and expanded by both political parties, at least until recently. Democrats favor protecting the social safety net, expanding opportunity for all Americans, and narrowing the appalling and increasing income inequality of recent years.
The result: The United States now has ideological parties, similar in some respects to the parties of European countries. There is nothing inherently wrong with ideological parties, except that the American political system was constructed to frustrate their development, and the system works best if the parties are centrist and willing to compromise.
The Constitution enshrined separation of powers, a doctrine originating in Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, in which the French philosopher urged a constitutional government with three separate branches of government -- executive, legislative, and judicial -- each of which has separate and defined powers that check the power of the other branches. In the American system, further checks reside in the federal system which delegates some powers to the states and others to the central government.
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, defended separation of powers in Federalist No. 51. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Madison wrote. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” This is done best, Madison argued, by the checks and balances created by the separation of powers.
In Federalist No. 10 Madison addressed the issue of factions. The Founding Fathers theoretically abhorred factions, or parties as we would label them. But Madison, ever the realist, believed, “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” Faction can’t be eliminated, but it can be controlled in a large republic in which constitutional checks and balances emphasize compromise and accommodation among competing groups.
Federalist No. 10 is often cited as proof that the framers intended to suppress partisanship. In the case of California Democratic Party v. Jones, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, referring to Madison’s paper, wrote, “Parties ranked high on the list of evils that the Constitution was designed to check.”
The system worked well for most of our history (the events leading to the Civil War being a key exception), because the political parties comprised coalitions of diverse groups. The Democratic Party fashioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt included big labor, urban immigrants, and the one-party South, while Republicans represented midwestern farmers, northeastern patricians, and fiscal conservatives. The parties governed through shifting coalitions of congressional Democrats and Republicans able to compromise as the issues changed.
Compromise is no longer possible for today’s rigid, ideological parties. The inability to compromise leads to gridlock in a system of checks and balances, especially when one party controls the House and the other party the Senate (though by not enough to frustrate the minority party’s ability to hamstring the body by invoking the filibuster) and the executive branch.
Ideological parties work best in a parliamentary system, such as in the United Kingdom, where there is no separation of powers. Instead, the executive branch derives its legitimacy from the legislature or parliament. The executive and legislative branches are interconnected, making it easier to achieve quick legislative action, because the executive, members of the dominant parliamentary party, has a guaranteed majority of votes.
The Founding Fathers worst fears have come true: Permanent political parties (what they called factions) based on ideology in a system constructed to work best when shifting coalitions compromise and accommodate differing ideas.
No wonder nothing gets done.