Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Looming Paroxysm

A quick point following up on my previous post.  As any grade school student can tell you, the U.S. Constitution is designed to protect citizens against their government by imposing checks and balances.  But it's worth asking whether the Constitution goes too far and creates the real possibility of elevating a tyrant.  By analogy, imagine that workers at a company are required to log in to their computers using a password.  The company decides to heighten security by requiring workers to change their passwords every two weeks.  Most workers respond by writing their passwords on sticky notes and sticking them to their monitors.

How does this play out today?  The Constitution enables an obstructionist party to frustrate all attempts to legislate.  You would expect this to hurt the party's reputation and cause it to lose seats, but again the Constitution steps in to ensure that certain people and places are structurally over-represented in Congress.  Also, the President inevitably carries much of the blame for government dysfunction, regardless of his/her role in it.  So obstructionism can be a stable, winning strategy.

But obstructionism (like an annoying password policy) invites a response.  Specifically, as I outlined in my last post, it might encourage extremism and disdain for the ordinary business of governing.  And it can also foster campaigns like Donald Trump's.  I have enough faith in our Constitution that I think he would be unable to carry out his domestic agenda in full (though certain grotesque elements of it, like mass deportation, are certainly possible).  But that would leave foreign/military policy in the hands of a dangerous narcissist.  It's also important to remember that our constitutional order doesn't consist solely of the Constitution, and Trump's disdain for basic norms of legality and limited government make him dangerous even if he is formally constrained.

So in other words, the checks and balances that theoretically constrain our government might bottle up our impulses until they become dangerous.  The closest historical precedent that I can think of is the demise of the Fourth Republic at the hands of De Gaulle.  I'm not knowledgeable enough about France to say whether the Fifth Republic has been an improvement, but it seems to have been what was required to end the bleeding in Algeria.

But Trump is no de Gaulle.  ("All my life I have had a certain idea of France, and let me tell you, it's going to be the greatest, the best, the most spectacular France you've ever seen.  And believe me, we're going to win...  a lot.")  I have a fairly high degree of confidence that our political system can keep him from power.  But it's better not to test these things, and anyway it's not as though perpetual obstructionism (or if you prefer, punctuated equilibrium) would be a satisfactory state of affairs even in the absence of the threat of tyranny.  We should adjust our constitutional order before it is adjusted for us.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am more optimistic than you, but I think you ascribe to the constitution as fundamental problems several issues that are due to fairly recent procedural and committee rules. A lot of current polarization is due to the majority of majority rule in the house. For most of the history of the US, for a bill to pass the house it was required that the majority of representatives vote for it. Currently, it requires that the majority of the majority party vote for it. Even if the majority of representatives would vote for it, a bill can’t pass without majority of majority.
Example: suppose there were 220R and 180D in the house. Suppose a bill had support of 100R and 170D. In this case the bill is supported by 270/400, so not only a majority, but a supermajority large enough to break a filibuster in the senate. Such a bill could not pass the house because 100R is not a majority of 220R.
Things like this explain a lot of recent polarization.

3:39 PM  
Blogger James said...

The "majority of the majority" rule isn't a formal rule, it's a rule of practice. It is possible because the Speaker of the House is the "agenda setter" - he or she controls what is voted on and when. Boehner from time to time violated the rule when the Republican Party's interests seemed to require it (for instance, to extend the Violence Against Women Act). But if Boehner had violated the rule more often, he would have been replaced sooner, since obviously it is unpopular within the party to pass legislation the party doesn't support. So I think the rule is more of a symptom than a cause of ideologically coherent parties.


5:08 PM  

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