Officially, a big part of the federal government shut down late last month. In important ways, however, America’s government went AWOL almost two years earlier, when Donald Trump was inaugurated.
After all, politicians supposedly seek office in order to get stuff done — to tackle real problems and implement solutions. But neither Trump, who spends his energy inventing crises at the border, nor the Republicans who controlled Congress for two years have done any of that. Their only major legislative achievement was a tax cut that blew up the deficit without, as far as anyone can tell, doing anything to enhance the economy’s long-run growth prospects.
Meanwhile, there has been no hint of the infrastructure plan Trump promised to deliver. And after many years of denouncing Obamacare and promising to provide a far better replacement, Republicans turned out to have no idea how to do that, and in particular no plan to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions.
Why can’t Republicans govern? It’s not just that their party is committed to an ideology that says that government is always the problem, never the solution. Beyond that, they have systematically deprived themselves of the ability to analyze policies and learn from evidence, because hard thinking might lead someone to question received doctrine.
And Republicans still control the Senate and the White House. So even when (if?) the shutdown ends, it will be at least two years before we have a government in Washington that’s actually capable of, or even interested in, governing.
Until recently Republicans had a virtual lock on state government. Almost half the population lived in states with Republican “trifectas,” that is, G.O.P. control of both houses plus the governorship. Democrats had comparable control in California, and pretty much nowhere else.
But elections since then have transformed the picture. New Jersey and Washington went full Democratic in 2017, and six more states, including Illinois and New York, flipped in November. At this point more than a third of Americans live under full Democratic control, not far short of the Republican total.
These newly empowered majorities are moving quickly to start governing again. And the experience of states that already had Democratic trifectas suggests that they may achieve a lot.
And health care isn’t the only front for new action. For example, Newsom is also proposing major new spending on education and housing affordability. The latter is very important: Soaring housing costs are the biggest flaw in California’s otherwise impressive success story.
Now, let’s be clear: Not all of the new Democratic policy proposals will actually be implemented, and not all of those that do go into effect will live up to expectations. There’s no such thing as perfection, in policy or in life, and leaders who never experience failures or setbacks aren’t taking enough risks.
The point, however, is that newly empowered state and local politicians do seem willing to take risks and try new things in an effort to make progress against the nation’s problems.
And that’s a very hopeful sign for America, because their example may prove contagious.
Justice Louis Brandeis famously described the states as the laboratories of democracy; right now they’re the places where we’re seeing what it looks like when elected officials try to do what they were elected to do, and actually govern. If we’re lucky, two years from now that attitude may re-establish itself in the nation’s capital.
Whatever the reasons, the American state has always been weaker and less capable than its European or Asian counterparts. And note that distrust of government is not a conservative monopoly; many on the Left worry about the capture of national institutions by powerful corporate interests and prefer to achieve their desired policy outcomes by means of grassroots activism via the courts.
.. What makes this system so unwieldy is not the level of regulation as such, but the highly legalistic way in which it is pursued. Congress mandated the creation of an alphabet soup of new Federal agencies—the EEOC, EPA, OSHA and so forth—but it was not willing to cleanly delegate to these bodies the kind of rule-making authority and enforcement power that European or Japanese state institutions enjoy.
.. Morris Fiorina has shown that the American “political class” is far more polarized than the American people themselves. Most Americans support moderate or compromise positions on many contentious issues.
.. In most European parliamentary systems, it makes no sense for an interest group to lobby an individual MP since the rules of party discipline allow little or no influence over the party leadership’s position. In the U.S. system, by contrast, an influential committee chairmanship confers enormous powers to modify legislation, and therefore becomes the target of enormous lobbying activity.
.. The American political system has decayed over time because its traditional system of checks and balances has deepened and become increasingly rigid. At a time of sharp political polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests, but gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people.
.. Many of these problems could be solved if the United States moved to a more unified parliamentary system of government, but so radical a change in the country’s institutional structure is barely conceivable. Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document. Persuading them to rethink its most basic tenets short of an outright system collapse is highly unlikely.