New York: At the current juncture, the Democratic Party is in power in the executive branch of government (i.e. President Obama), as well as in the Senate (100 members), the upper chamber of the US Congress led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The House of Representatives (435 members), the lower chamber, is under the control of the Republican Party (aka the GOP) embodied in the characters of its most extreme members (the “Tea Party”), as well as the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. This is a very simplistic layout of the political leadership in the executive (the Presidency) and legislative (US Congress) branches of the federal government.
Add in the immense power of wealth and political lobbies on all varieties of politicians, the omnipotent yet ostensibly mysterious United States Supreme Court (with an almost equal balance of partisanship with one rather decisive swing vote), and of course state and local governments, and you can begin to get the picture of the institutions attempting to represent and govern the American people.
As the current debacle concerning the continued funding of health care reform, also known as the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) unfolds and the approval rating of the US Congress remains at an all-time low among the American public, I often find myself wondering about international perceptions of the American institutions that embody those so infamously touted (and criticized) in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. So many individuals, American and foreign, are bewildered and slightly in awe of the utter inability to seem to get anything done, or, as soon as something like health care reform passes, the opposition political party spends their entire mandate finding ways to defund it, or other more indirect ways of going after its political rival.
Divided government: friend or foe?
This is the problem: The Republican Party, one of two major political parties in a largely two-party system, is more focused on being against President Obama than for anything else. High ranking legislators and political experts from their own party, such as Arizona Senator John McCain and even former President Bush advisor Karl Rove, claim that the current plan to highjack the US debt ceiling for the sake of defunding Obama’s health care reform was an “ill-conceived tactic.” And those were the more mild critics.
Yet while Americans, and I imagine those all over the world who pay attention to US Congressional politics, claim to despise these political games, admirers of the American system praise the very gridlock that has forced so much legislation to a halt in recent years, highlighting the fact that compromise, debate, and persuasion are the roots of American democracy. After all, compromise over congressional representation was acclaimed as the “Great Compromise” because it appeased both smaller states—in the equal representation found in the Senate—as well as larger states—with the proportional representation found in the House of Representatives. We also cannot forget the less glamorous compromises at the founding of the United States, such as the three-fifths compromise. This meant that three-fifths of the slave population, in mostly southern states, would count towards political representation, thus reinforcing the inferiority of this group of people and validating the institution of slavery.
In addition to setting the stage for many a political debate to come, our “Founding Fathers” (who were hardly in agreement over much of anything contrary to popular belief), or some notion of a collective constitutional spirit based on limited government and individual freedoms perhaps inherently instilled the love for debate as the basis for American political culture. It is not just America’s democratic institutions that lead to such gridlock, but it is the American people who almost consistently vote for divided government. This means that whatever political party has power in the White House often does not have power in one or more chambers of the American Congress. In other words, we are incredibly suspicious of the absolute power of any one political party or branch of government, thanks to King George III’s taxation without representation, the founding of our country as a union of states, and the long discussion, that continues to this day, on the relationship between the federal government and the rights of the states. So, here we are, in a bit of a quagmire. Americans cannot stand Washington politicians, and yet we often set up a scenario to pit them against each other, thus creating the very situation we so despise.
But partisanship and divided government have taken on a whole new meaning in the President Obama vs. Speaker John Boehner(plus Tea Party radicals) era—one that goes from divided government for the sake of debate, to divided government for the sake of obstruction and an idea of America that is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Tocqueville and American democracy
Alexis de Tocqueville posited some several benefits to democratic culture and institutions in Democracy in America:
Democracy, even when local circumstances and the character of the people allow it to maintain itself, does not display a regular or methodical form of government. That is true. Democratic freedom does not carry its undertakings through as perfectly as an intelligent despotism would…Democracy does not provide a people with the most skillful of governments, but it does that which the most skillful government often cannot do: it spreads throughout the body social a restless activity, superabundant force, and energy never found elsewhere, which, however little favored by circumstance, can do wonders. Those are its true advantages.
This is the ideal outcome of the chaotic swirling of ideas that provides the basis for democracy. But the significant part here is the concept of opposing ideas, reforms, anything representing a viable alternative to the present condition. That is not happening in America’s democracy at the present moment. Rather than negotiating with the executive branch of government, the Republicans have made it their mission to work to oust Obama (now a two-term president), rather than work with him.
There are many other pillars to modern manifestations of Democracy in America. Whether we discuss questions on the freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, equal protection under the law; definitions of equality, privacy, cruel and unusual punishment; and the institutional principles behind the separation of powers, federal vs. state government, and strict vs. liberal interpretations of the US Constitution, it is always important to put these aspects of American political culture into context. This does not mean that I, as an American, do find some of these debates absurd and antiquated, but it does help me understand the lethargic, snail-like movement of political reforms and subsequent legislation.
But in this case radical members of the Republican Party have managed to persuade its political leadership to completely lose its grip with reality. They are and have been purposefully blocking laws and reforms from passing for the sole reason of obstructing President Obama’s mandate—every single bit of it, whether they may agree with it or not. They do not hide this fact. The Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell stated quite plainly in 2010, before President Obama was reelected, that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” In other words, in the Republican controlled House of Representatives, teamed up with the Republicans in the Senate (who are the minority party in this chamber) sought to boot Obama out, rather than pass any legislation. Their focus was not on the American people or compromising with the President, but just on making his tenure as difficult as possible. Speaker of the House John Boehner essentially argued that the Republican dominated chamber should be praised for all the legislation it has not passed. In other words, the less action, the better.
What’s the alternative?
This essay is not an exercise in worshipping President Obama or the Democratic Party, nor is it an attempt to debunk the assertion that compromise and debate is what makes America beautiful. Rather, I aim to illustrate how the Republican Party is offering no viable alternatives in terms of ideas at a time when we so desperately need them. All that I hear is cut spending, tax cuts, slash and burn Planned Parenthood, defund anything resembling the social welfare system—whether this be Medicaid, welfare for the poor, and more recently, food stamps. Cutting these programs offers no alternative for the millions of people who will suffer because of these obstructions. This fundamentally weakens our democracy by completely marginalizing groups of people who need our help the most and must have their voices heard.
I understand debating ideas and the efficacy of government programs, but how can this dialogue take place between the two parties when the Republicans offer no viable alternatives to these pressing needs. If the GOP wants to defund “Obamacare,” the first major overhaul of the health care system, similar to an idea proposed by a former Republican Congress anyway, show the American people some alternatives to health care reform. The status-quo is no long enough.
Show us ideas, and better yet, ideas that actually represent the troubles our country faces in 2013. It is only through a real debate in ideas that we can faithfully execute the principles of compromise and debate; gridlock for the sake of finding a better solution, not gridlock for the unequivocally narrow aims of partisan politics.
And above all, do not use the financial security of the Federal government as a bargaining chip in defunding the Obamacare. According to a White House Official cited by Politico, “The President telephoned Speaker Boehner and told him again that the full faith and credit of the United States should not and will not be subject to negotiation. The President reiterated that it is the constitutional responsibility of the US Congress to pass the nation’s budget and pay the nation’s bills.”
The House of Representatives voted to defund Obamacare this week, which is increasing the likelihood of the federal government shutting down. They are unwilling to raise the debt ceiling if Obamacare continues on, which means that the government could default on its loans. In other words they are threatening to put the domestic and global economy in a tailspin of uncertainty(just what it needs during a precarious recovery) to allegedly…save the economy from the “evil,” “socialist,” “communist,” grips of providing more people with health care.
Those attempting to hold American hostage in this way are diffusing a new notion of Democracy in America throughout the world, one that prefers incompetence, inaction, draconian austerity measures for the poor, and benefits for the rich and corporate greed, over representing the American people and human justice. This blocks our ability to meet the global and domestic challenges are country is facing.
The United States Congress must start taking their job more seriously. If not, I think we have a dark road ahead of us.
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 See “Respect for the Law in the United States,” The Advantages of Democratic Government, Democracy in America; Alexis de Tocqueville, Copyright 1969 by J.P. Mayer.