Shutdown Crisis Shows We’ve Lost Some of Our Exceptionalism

NPR had an article today asking Would The U.S. Be Better Off With A Parliament? They brushed away the suggestion that it would ever be possible, but I wonder if such a change is inevitable given the way our parties have changed.

When I brought this up on Facebook, someone suggested that the root of our current crisis is the number of lawyers we have in Congress. But I don’t think the problem is the presence of lawyers. I think the problem is that this is the first time in our nation’s history that our two parties are fairly ideologically pure. In the past, there was more of a mix, with the Democrats being generally liberal but also having Southern conservatives, and the Republicans being generally conservative but also having liberal New Englanders. In the current arrangement, there are almost no white Democrats left in office in the south, and there are almost no Republicans left in office in New England.

The effect of this is that the parties vote much more in lock-step. In the 1950s, we would have conservatives from both parties working together for bipartisan conservative goals, and the same on the liberal side. It’s not just there anymore.

Our Presidential system is unique around the world – no other country has it. The main reason it worked in the past is that we had parties that were willing to be non-parliamentary, that were willing to work together, or at least had diverse enough wings that compromise was possible (Another reason it worked is that earmarks could be used as “incentives”, but they are now prohibited).

Not anymore. With the extreme increase in the use of the filibuster over the past few decades, a rare procedure is now commonplace, and the Constitutional definition of majority rule in the Senate was broken. With the “Hastert Rule” non-rule in the House, the GOP has unilaterally decided that a bipartisan bill that would pass with a combination of some or all Democrats and a minority of the GOP won’t even be considered without the support of the majority of the GOP.

Yes, the GOP has used a mixture of previously-unexploited rules and new inventions to change the very definition of majority rule in the Capitol (and yes, the Democrats used the filibuster, too, but the GOP has taken to a new level). This sort of partisan absolutism makes sense in a parliamentary system, where the party in power has full responsibility, accountability, and authority, but it’s death to a Presidential system in which both the President and the legislature claim to be the voice of the people. This absolutism is the reason that the Strong-President model we have has never worked anywhere else in the world. And it doesn’t really work for us anymore, either.

There’s a lot of irony here – the GOP crows a lot about American exceptionalism, and one area in which they were right was in the success of our unique legislative system. However, in their quest for party unity and power, they have destroyed it. The party that demands that the US be considered exceptional has taken away one of the reasons to do so.

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About Lance Finney

Father of two boys, Java developer, Ethical Humanist, and world traveler (when I can sneak it in). Contributor to Grounded Parents.
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3 Responses to Shutdown Crisis Shows We’ve Lost Some of Our Exceptionalism

  1. Phil Freeman says:

    I’m sure you’ve seen this: http://xkcd.com/1127/large/
    While Congress is extremely ideological now, I question the claim that this is without precedent. To be fair, this is my only source of data, and it’s a cartoon.
    The Senate was very partisan left after the civil war. The House was very ideologically right at the start of our nation. Both of those times were, however, over 100 years ago now. Enough has changed since then that I can concede that this time it’s different.
    Either way, it’s an interesting graph to peruse.

  2. The refusal of a few members of Congress to govern is a refutation of the rule of law itself. They deserve every negative consequence of their action, the least of which should be loss of their jobs.

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