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Why other countries manage to avoid political gridlock and we can’t

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Seldom in recent history has one party held all the power needed to enact its program.

In his eponymous blog, former Labor Secretary and Bernie Sanders supporter Robert Reich tells of a recent conversation with a poll-wise friend who called him breathlessly predicting a historic Democratic landslide this fall, in which Hillary Clinton will carry states the Dems haven’t won in years, and Democrats will take back majority control of the Senate. Will it be a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Reich asks. No, says the friend.

What about the House? Reich asks the friend. No, the friend says, it won’t turn over but the Dems will cut into the Repub majority. What about the states? No, most of the states will still be controlled by Republicans. So, Reich recaps, a huge historic landslide win will result in only one piece of the federal government changing partisan control from red to blue, the Senate, and even there the Repubs can block most things with a filibuster. Yes, the now-less-excited poll-wise friend acknowledges.

Reich claims to have succeeded in depressing his friend, who ends the conversation with “Remind me never to call you again.” But Reich didn’t go where I usually do at this point in the analysis, which is to think about our sacred system itself, especially in comparison with others around the world.

Many, probably most of the other systems are set up so that a party or a coalition of parties that wins a landslide victory is in position to enact and implement the program on which they ran. In most of those systems, there is only one house of the legislative branch (or one that holds almost all of the power) and the leader of that party is the prime minister (that’s how he or she gets to be prime minister) so he or she won’t be vetoing the bills that pass. The other systems don’t generally have a high court filled with lifetime appointees who can, and in the United States frequently do, strike down parts or all of a piece of legislation that has been enacted by the elected representatives of the people.

In short, those other systems are designed to produce, in the aftermath of an election, a government that can govern, meaning enact and implement the policy proposals on which it ran. If the public doesn’t like how that works out, they know whom to blame and can make a change at the next election.

Our system is unusual by international standards. Seldom in recent history has one party held all the power needed to enact its program. Not too many decades ago, big programs often passed on at least a compromise basis or with a coalition made up of members of both parties. That’s pretty much over. Now, in the Era of No Compromise, each party constantly encourages the public to blame the other party for whatever bad is happening, and it’s not easy for a voter to know whom to blame.

Americans are mostly so enamored of the piece of American exceptionalism that suggests ours is the greatest system ever devised that it may be hard for them to entertain the idea that part of our problem is baked into our structure and even into our beloved, sacred, perfect Constitution, although by the small snideness I don’t mean to “blame” the framers, who did their framing at a time when there were no functioning national parties and they didn’t imagine that there would be (although the first two-party system emerged pretty soon after they were done framing).

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Bill Phillips on 08/30/2016 - 09:00 am.

    Robert Reich

    I have been reading Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism and, while it is not an enjoyable read, it’s pretty informative with regard to how our system has become so skewed that political gridlock might almost be preferable to the ultraconservative alternative of dismantling our government in favor of the so-called “free market.”

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/30/2016 - 09:31 am.

    The Not So Subtle Republican Shift

    The Republicans will probably lose some ground in the next election, but no enough. I suspect the filibuster comment will come true. The Republicans will remain leaderless. They will be floundering around the political world working their obstructionism shifting to sexism rather than the current racism as their rationale. Unfortunately we are likely a generation away from solving the gridlock problem because of career politicians.

  3. Submitted by David Wintheiser on 08/30/2016 - 09:35 am.

    Not convinced…

    …that avoiding ‘gridlock’ is necessarily a good thing.

    Consider France, for instance, and their recent ‘burkini’ ban. Granted, the bans are being imposed by local governments rather than the national government, but the bans are still a knee-jerk reaction to the Nice terror attacks rather than any rational approach to fighting terrorism.

    Meanwhile, in England, rule by the conservative Tory party has imposed austerity measures beyond anything strictly necessary in such a wealthy nation, and has convinced rank-and-file Britons that their society is in such poor shape that they narrowly voted to leave the European Union. The equivalent measures in the U.S. might convince the public that the nation should withdraw from NATO or even the United Nations, based on the theory that we ‘waste’ money spent on those organizations that could go toward our own national goals, ignoring that we have plenty of money for both, assuming we budget it wisely and collect the taxes we should.

    If the Founders had an enduring insight into the nature of government, it is that government left to react to the winds of immediate opinion tends to make more poor decisions than good ones, and it is only with the deliberation offered by time that the passions of the moment can give way and lead to good government. In that sense, making it difficult for the government to become an instrument of policy for one political party (and numerous Founders had grave doubts that political parties would even be good for the nation) is a spectacularly good idea, and one we discard at our peril.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/30/2016 - 09:52 am.

    Been Waiting…

    For you to get around to Robert Reich.

    If you turn this into a series, please consider titling it “Popular Economics.”

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/30/2016 - 10:35 am.

    No traction

    A parliamentary system – by whatever name it might be called – is very attractive in the Age of Gridlock. A variety of editors at The New Republic have been advocating it for decades, and that’s a magazine that used to have the attention of a good many policy makers in the nation’s capital. I think its influence has diminished considerably in recent years, along with its financial fortunes, but the proposal to adopt some sort of more responsive system has been around for a very long time.

    And for a very long time, it has failed to gain traction.

    It’s a political fact of life that’s been very frustrating at times, at least for some, and a saving grace of what even its defenders sometimes concede is a clumsy system for others. I certainly understand the attraction of a more responsive system, and for both sides, but this is a point where my usual political liberal self begins to swing to the right. I’m not entirely convinced by David Wintheiser (and the ideas are not original to him), but I’m also not inclined to dismiss what he says categorically. Our revered Founding Fathers had similar thoughts when constructing the government, if one were to read The Federalist Papers, among other documents of the time.

    While I join Eric in frustration at the inability of even mildly “progressive” measures to get through a Congress that doesn’t even pretend to do its job of governing under the current regime of the GOP, the prospect of a racist Mitch McConnell, a similarly delusional Paul Ryan, and a sociopathic Donald Trump in the White House being able to quickly enact legislation and enforce executive actions that would, I believe, disembowel the economy and society in a matter of weeks is, frankly, horrifying. I’m pretty sure people I consider to be right wing crazies have similarly awful visions of what might happen if liberal Democrats were to gain control of all the branches of government, including the SCOTUS, even though The Apocalypse failed to arrive during previous periods in which Democrats – or Republicans – controlled the government.

    The current difference is one of what, for lack of a better name, I’ll call “tone.” As a certified old person, I can recall eras in the 20th century, and even very early in this century, when political opponents were merely that, and were not, ipso facto, considered to be the spawn of the Devil, with whom any sort of compromise was an admission of character flaw or a mind weakened by the opponent’s propaganda. I’ve voted for Republicans in the past, as well as Democrats, but in recent years, I’ve rarely seen someone in the former group whose views on a variety of topics (admittedly some more than others) do not reek of Koch brothers’ Ayn Rand-ian ideology. It’s an ideology on which no civilized society can exist. Democrats are not at all above pandering to their own base of support, and I find pandering distasteful in just about any guise, but Democrats get my vote, for the most part, because they’re more often (though certainly not always) willing to take into account the human costs, as well as the economic ones, of policy proposals. They seem less reflexively selfish and self-serving.

    In the end, at least at this moment in history, I share Eric’s frustration with our current dysfunctional system more than anything else, but having said that, I also have to concede that David Wintheiser’s final paragraph contains much truth. Just like a lot of other people, I’m not eager to see major revision (e.g., a constitutional convention to revise and update the document and the government) unless that convention is going to be controlled by people who share my views, and therein lies the crux of the matter at present.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/30/2016 - 11:56 am.

    Don’t blame the framers for not imagining a people, who once tasted the fruits of a democratic government, would devolve into the undemocratic position of no compromise. They thought there would always be a striving for a more perfect union.

    The underlying history of the basic documents of this country is of the compromises between the various parties to arrive at the final documents. Without compromise then, there would be no Constitution. Without compromise now, we are a rudderless ship in the current of events.

    “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

  7. Submitted by Roy Everson on 08/30/2016 - 12:11 pm.

    They gotta compromise — or else!

    I wouldn’t worry about a far-right wing agenda being passed by an American parliament. Chances are there would be 2-3 parties on the right/center-right, including Libertarian which might be a check on the right’s authoritarian and hawkish bent. A Christian party may even help defend the social safety net! (That’s what they do in Norway, anyway.) Throw in a social democratic-progressive party and a pro-small business/farmers/whatever centrist party (the two are natural coalition material) and you have yourself a modern democracy.

    The corporate parties? Well, about all that money in politics, that was soooo yesterday. And BTW, think of it — a party on the right that could compete for racial and religious minority group members.

    Speaking of Norway the most anti-immigrant party has been a government coalition member for nearly three years yet you don’t see busloads of people being deported. It may get tougher in some ways but the overall policy is tempered by humane instincts of other parties.

    In these systems members of parliament are expected to work for their party’s platform, not obstruct the election results. They must work across many aisles because their coalition partners may not supply enough votes for their issues.

    More parties in the people’s house means more points of view are represented, encouraging higher turnout of voters, and an overall more democratic system.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/30/2016 - 03:28 pm.

      Powerful forces will make sure your vision never happens.

      One of these, near at hand, is the Presidential debate commission, an entity dedicated to the preservation of the perverse two party system we have.

      What rationale is there to restrict the debates to Clinton and Trump, other than to make sure one of them wins ??

      Please don’t even think of objecting that to allow 3, 4, or even 5 candidates to debate would confuse the idiotic homo boobus. Rather, it would CLARIFY what a cynical game the duopoly plays.

      This election could use the purifying influence of sunshine and fresh air, which the additional candidates could provide. We sure as heck aren’t going to get either of these from Clinton or Trump.

      And by what legitimate authority is this organization granted such powers ??

      This commission is not the only entity seeking to preserve the 2 party system. But they will soon have an inordinate influence. I am waiting to see if they’re going to allow a partisan audience – to emphasize the entertainment angle and add to the clamor and disgrace.

      I am sorry to report that the fix is in, Mr. Everson.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/30/2016 - 06:22 pm.


        The debate commission will let in candidates if they reach a minimal level of support. If you can’t poll 15 percent by the time the debates come around, you aren’t going to be president. And the purpose of the debates is to help people choose which candidate is going to be president. Giving time to someone who is pulling 2 percent is a worthless distraction.

        I also don’t see much in the way of sunshine and fresh air this year. Gary Johnson was at least a competent governor a long time ago, but is trotting out standard libertarian fantasy positions. Jill Stein has a child’s understanding of complex issues and has nothing whatsoever to contribute to a meaningful debate.

  8. Submitted by John Webster on 08/30/2016 - 12:54 pm.

    Parliamentary System = Accountability

    I was persuaded of the superiority of the British parliamentary system 30+ years ago by Richard Strout of The New Republic (the old days when TNR was a serious publication, not the hipster Left trivia it is today). There are valid historical reasons for the American structure of government: the Constitution is a series of compromises between people from varied geography and with varied interests. Back then, most people identified more with their home states than with the national government, and the small states insisted on equal representation in one house of the legislature to prevent the big states from controlling the entire government. And no one at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 foresaw the inevitable rise of political parties, i.e. the grouping together of politicians with largely similar worldviews.

    I agree with Eric Black that our system is highly inefficient, and worst of all, it results in much too little accountability. Politicians run as free agents, promising all kinds of things that have no chance of being passed in Congress or signed into law by the President, and then blaming the other side for obstructionism, or even blaming their fellow party members in the other branch of Congress. It’s hard to assign clear blame or credit for most of what happens or not in Congress. The same dynamic occurs in Minnesota, where divided government always results in gridlock and fingerpointing.

    The U.S.Constitution with its written Bill of Rights provides the strongest guarantees of civil liberties in history, especially the First Amendment, which gives us rights to free expression that not even other democracies have. But no other organization – business, pro sports team, whatever – would succeed with the lack of accountability that our structure of government breeds.

  9. Submitted by joe smith on 08/31/2016 - 07:20 am.

    Thank goodness we have a system of checks

    and balances. The only folks upset are those who want drastic change in a short time. We all got a glimpse of what happens when one party shoves a popular idea (Government run healthcare) with Obamacare in 2009. It took a procedural vote with the Democrats with majorities in both Houses and the Presidency, to push a 6,000 page disaster on the folks. We have a divided population and the debate should be between Democrats and their desire for bigger govt and the conservatives that want smaller govt. Whoever wins will have push back from the other party and change will happen slowly…. That is the way it should work.

  10. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/31/2016 - 09:01 am.

    Not so simply…

    What we need is a more perfect union.

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/31/2016 - 11:49 am.


    My own view is the way our government was designed was intended to give the south a veto power over any attempt to eliminate slavery.

  12. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/31/2016 - 09:20 pm.

    On one level . . .

    the Constitution is a masterpiece of political thinking and craftsmanship. It is the very embodiment of 18th century Enlightenment thought on how to deal with feudalistic tyranny and despotism. It creates power by distributing among thee branches of government in order to check the arbitrary, despotic exercise of power by any one or two of them.

    But on another level, this system of government was ultimately unable to resolve the compromise which gave it birth: how to deal with human slavery, And it failed, and is still failing, to address the problems created by the the Industrial Revolution. It might be argued that the problems of the Industrial Revolution which were manifested most acutely in the Great Depression of 1929-1933 was solved by the New Deal and WWII. But hold on. The New Deal would very well have foundered if WWII had not come along to enable the federal government unprecedented intervention in the economy.

    The gridlock which we are now experiencing is the culmination of a counter-attack on the New Deal and the few modest reforms enacted after WWII that made a bit of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution available to larger numbers of citizens. Money, concentrated in the hands of the relative few who have managed to prevent the benefits of the Industrial Revolution from being more widely distributed, have proved that they can use that wealth to prevent progress in making the benefits of industrial wealth available to all. The question now is whether the gridlock, which seems to be built into the system, will prevent the majority from using their government for progressive purposes to their advantage. Or whether that’s a problem that will have to be confronted like the issue of slavery was.

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