Let’s learn from this inevitable crisis, which results from flaws in our system

Summary: While the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis probably ends in days or a few weeks, the lessons we learn from it can help us better manage the similar crises that lie ahead. Failure to learn and respond to these might have ugly consequences during the next decade. Today we look at one of the two vital lessons. This is the second of a four part series.

Blasting caps
Just like the Tea Party Movement



  1. Introduction to our problem
  2. A brilliant but superficial analysis
  3. A deeper analysis
  4. Another forecast
  5. Other posts in this series
  6. For More Information


(1)  Introduction

While the shutdown and debt crisis probably ends in days or a few weeks, the lessons we learn from it can help us better manage the many crises that lie ahead. The two great lessons:

  1. Our government’s structure is exceptional because it is flawed, and so copied by few other nations.
  2. The two Tea Party and Evangelical factions of the GOP have allied, becoming a powerful force in US politics. This crisis shows that they have become a disruptive due to their alienation and unwillingness to compromise.

Our Constitutional structure of a divided Executive and Legislature — with the Legislature further divided into two houses — allows potentially destabilizing political gridlock. The somewhat non-ideological basis of American parties for most of our history (with other strong divisions, such as regional) hid this. But now the parties have resorted themselves on more logical lines, sharpening the competition and making compromise more difficult.

Perhaps after two centuries we should worship the Founders less and strive to improve on their work. We can start by asking why most new nations adopt parliamentary systems, instead of copying ours.

The second factor is the maturation of US political system into ideologically coherent parties, with both having an extreme acting as shock troops. The Republicans, as usual, do this much better than the Democrats — building the Tea Party movement into a powerful grassroots activist network. It’s the logical evolution of our system, remarkable only in that it took two centuries.

The first is like dynamite (the subject of today’s post). Tomorrow we discuss the second, which is like a detonator. The combination can produce a ugly crisis, which the current one foreshadows. But the problem is structural. The Founders hated and feared “factions”, but made few provisions in the political system for their management. Its emergence seems inevitable during a crisis, eventually.

(2) A brilliant but superficial analysis

Shutdown’s roots lie in deeply embedded divisions in America’s politics“, Washington Post, 5 October 2013 — Excerpt:

The government shutdown did not happen by accident. It is the latest manifestation — an extreme one by any measure — of divisions long in the making and now deeply embedded in the country’s politics. At some point, presumably, the current standoff will end. The federal government will reopen, the ceiling on its borrowing power will be lifted and some stalled legislation could pass. Some sense of normalcy will return to official Washington.

But it also could be a new normal, as confrontation remains commonplace and true compromise rare. Meanwhile, the ideological, cultural and political differences that led to this moment of extreme governmental dysfunction are almost certain to shape elections and legislative battles in the near term.

Atomic bomb explosion
Crisis: the alternative to reform


That is the conclusion of politicians, political strategists and scholars who have been living with a deepening red-blue divide in America that they say has made this era of politics the most polarized in more than a century. However bad it may have seemed in the 1990s, the last time there was a shutdown , or after the contested presidential election in 2000, or a decade ago during a divisive war, the fundamentals are worse today.

… In the states, the red-blue divisions have for now produced governments largely controlled by one party or the other. In Washington, they have produced a divided government and could continue to do so for some years to come. Nothing in politics is permanent, but Democrats now enjoy some advantage in the electoral college competition, while the alignment of congressional districts gives Republicans the upper hand in controlling the House. Divided government has resulted in a breakdown in governance.

… “I don’t really see a way out of it in the very short term,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who has written extensively on polarization. “We’re stuck in it. There was a time when it was possible for the parties to work together, because the divide between them was much smaller. Now we’ve gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible.”

… Over the past two decades, the percentage of self-identified Republicans and Democrats who support their party’s presidential nominee has ticked higher and higher. In the past three elections, according to American National Election Studies data cited by Jacobson, 89 or 90 percent of Republicans and Democrats backed their party’s nominees. Three decades ago, those percentages were considerably lower.

What made 2012 more significant was the degree to which voting in House and Senate elections followed a similar pattern. In each case, nine in 10 partisans backed their party’s candidates for either House or Senate races.

The 2012 election represented a high point for trends that have increased polarization. In the 1980s, another period of divided government, a quarter of the electorate voted for president one way and the House or Senate another way. In 2012, only about 11 percent of voters in the ANES studies cited by Jacobson said they split their tickets.

… What’s important about this is that there is now almost no intersection between the coalition that elected the president and the one that elected the majority in the House. Members of Congress have far less incentive to compromise with a president of another party if they know they are not dependent in any significant way on that president’s supporters.

“If you look at the people who elected Obama and the people who elected the Republicans in the House, there’s very little overlap,” Jacobson said. “They owe their victories to very different constituencies, to folks who are pretty divided on every political issue.”

… At the time of the last shutdown  Wasserman said, not quite one-third represented districts where the Republican vote was 10 points or more above the party’s national average. Today, more than half of them are in such districts.

But it is not just that Republican districts have become redder. Democrats’ districts are bluer, as well. In 1995-96, the median Democratic seat was about 6.7 points more Democratic than the national average. Today, that figure has jumped to 11.2 points. Wasserman notes that the partisan leanings of the median Democratic district actually rose more than in the median Republican district.

… Ideological polarization in the House is wider than it has ever been. The last time it approached today’s levels was after the Civil War, in the late 19th century. Nolan McCarty, a political science professor at Princeton University, has helped chart those changes, along with the scholars who first created the index, Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University.

Calling the period during Reconstruction “a highly polarized time,” McCarty said: “Our measures today are far worse than we observed then. We’re almost at the point where we can’t measure further increases.”

Today, there is almost no overlap between the voting behavior of the most conservative Democrats in the House and the most liberal Republicans. That’s in part because there are few ­moderate-to-conservative Democrats and ­moderate-to-liberal Republicans left in the chamber.

… Much of this has resulted from well-documented changes that have made each party more homogenous than in earlier eras. Two shifts account for many of these changes. The first is the realignment of the South, which has become solidly Republican. The second is the realignment outside the South with the decline of the liberal wing of the Republican Party in the Northeast and Midwest.

… Many polls in the past few years have charted the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats in their attitudes about government’s role. Republicans have shifted more to the right than Democrats have shifted to the left, but on both sides passions are stronger than they were two decades ago.

… The absence of a center in today’s politics significantly complicates coalition building. “How do you build a coalition from the center out when there’s no one in the middle?” Abramowitz asked. “Reaching across the aisle means reaching pretty far.”

(3)  A deeper analysis

The shutdown is the Constitution’s fault“, Dylan Matthews, Washington Post, 2 October 2013 — Read it in full! Here is the opening:

The government is shut down. Two million federal workers are having paychecks delayed, and 800,000 of them might never be repaid at all. Food safety inspections are on hold. Kids are being refused experimental treatments for cancer.

So whose fault is it?

You can say it’s the fault of House Republicans, who refuse to pass a continuing resolution that gives them more in the way of spending cuts than they wanted just two years ago, but which the Senate’s passed already and President Obama has said he’ll sign.

If you’re Ted Cruz, you’ll say that it’s the fault of Obama and the Senate for not being willing to trade the government staying open for Obamacare getting defunded.

If you’re a congressional process nerd, you’ll blame a budget process that has stopped working, if it ever did work, and which asks Congress to take far more actions every year than it can be expected to take in its currently hyper-polarized state.

But the deeper answer is that it’s James Madison’s fault. This week’s shutdown is only the latest symptom of an underlying disease in our democracy whose origins lie in the Constitution and some supremely misguided ideas that made their way into it in 1787, and found their fullest exposition in Madison’s Federalist no. 51. And that disease is rapidly getting worse. …

(4)  Another forecast

The Shutdown Prophet“, Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine, 6 October 2013 — “Washington couldn’t have gone dark without a radicalized Republican Party. Or maybe it was destined to all along.” Opening:

In a merciful twist of fate, Juan Linz did not quite live to see his prophecy of the demise of American democracy borne out. Linz, the Spanish political scientist who died last week, argued that the presidential system, with its separate elections for legislature and chief executive, was inherently unstable. In a famous 1990 essay,

Linz observed, “All such systems are based on dual democratic legitimacy: No democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people.” Presidential systems veered ultimately toward collapse everywhere they were tried, as legislators and executives vied for supremacy. There was only one notable exception: the United States of America.

Juan Linz’s article: “The Perils of Presidentialism“, Journal of Democracy, Winter 1990.

(5)  Other posts in this series

  1. Most of what Democrats say is wrong about the Republicans’ recent actions in Congress
  2. Let’s learn from this inevitable crisis, which results from flaws in our system
  3. About the crisis: The GOP is right. So is Obama. That’s why it’s a crisis.
  4. A new political party for a New America: the Tea Party GOP

(6)  For More Information

(a)  FM reference pages, a guide to other posts about these matters:

(b) Other post about the shutdown:

(c)  Other posts about deep flaws in America’s political structure

It is a better system, which is why most new nations copy their system, not ours

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament



14 thoughts on “Let’s learn from this inevitable crisis, which results from flaws in our system”

  1. Pingback: Let’s learn from this inevitable crisis, which results from flaws in our system - Global Dissident

  2. Question from a reader

    Can the president declare a national emergency and unilaterally raise the debt ceiling?

    1. Our history shows that Presidents can take bold steps beyond their authority, and get away with it. Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, Jackson sent troops into Spanish Florida, FDR waged war against Germany, Truman sent troops into Korea — all without Congressional authorization. Americans have in the past applauded bold Presidential action, especially when claiming higher authority for their actions. Such as the 14th Amendment:

      Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

      For more about this see “Experts See Potential Ways Out for Obama in Debt Ceiling Maze“, New York Times, 3 October 2013

    2. ulenspiegel1965

      F.M. wrote: “..FDR waged war against Germany…”

      To my best of knowledge, Germany declared war on the USA on 11th December 1941. In this case authorization by the Congress does sound a little bit strange to me. What would have happened if the Congress had not given it?

      1. ulenspiegel,

        Thanks for catching that. My statement was, as you note, incorrect. In today’s post I make that point more accurately:

        Elected on a peace platform while preparing for war, FDR tied his own knot. He aggressively bent the 1930s Neutrality Acts to help Britain. Actions such as the ironically named Neutrality Patrol were interventions to help Britain.

  3. Bonesetter Brown

    Does this crisis inevitably result from flaws in our system? Or could our system be improved to handle these inevitable crises?

    The recurring deep divide and crises in Anglo-American history are described in Strauss & Howe’s books, including the Fourth Turning. In the mid-90s, their description of possible trigger events for the next Fourth Turning included the following:

    “Sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning…..a spark will ignite a new mood…In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party……the following circa-2005 scenarios might seem plausible:

    + A global terrorist group blows up an aircraft and announces it possesses portable nuclear weapons……Congress declares war…..Opponents charge that the president concocted the emergency for political purposes.

    + An impasse over the federal budget reaches a stalemate. The President and Congress both refuse to back down, triggering a near-total government shutdown…..Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Default looms. Wall Street panics.”

    Per Strauss & Howe, the American Revolution was a crisis-resolving event, and our Constitution was born out of the resolution.

    1. Bonesetter,

      I’m not a fan of the broad-brush kind of analysis done in the “4th Turning”, but that’s just my personal preference (i.e., not a judgement on it). Everybody has their own way of seeing the world, and together we see it more clearly than as individuals.

      All that aside, the structural flaws — excessive division of legitimate authority, rotten boroughs in the Senate, etc — can of course be fixed. In fact, every society has structural flaws. A nation’s ability to fix political flaws as they become serious is a demonstration of its vitality (i.e., fitness).

      These problems are, like our dysfunctional health care system and mad grand strategy, relatively easy to fix as such things go. They solutions (or rather, some solutions) are obvious and well-proven by our peers. The challenge is making a smooth transition.

      We have in the past done so, although with difficulty. Getting rid of slavery required a massive war plus another century of often-violent struggle. Ending the increasing concentration of income and power called the Gilded Age required the threat of communism plus a Great Depression.

      Now we’re at bat again. Place your bets…

    2. Bonesetter Brown

      I have similar reservations about the broad-brush analysis of Strauss and Howe. But the idea is an interesting one — that recurring crises on periods of ~70-80 years are a fixture of the Anglo-American experience over the last 400 years. If there is truth to this (emphasis on “if”), then the conflict is less a byproduct of our form of government.

      I’m betting on increasing divide for the long-term. Just like Clay/Calhoun were succeeded by winner-take-all-actors leading up to the Civil War, Reagan/Rostonkowski gave way to Clinton/Gingrich before bringing us to our current round of Obama/Tea Party.

      1. Bonesetter,

        You might be correct in your forecast. Here’s a cautionary note: we tend to overestimate the frequency of rare events because the rare events dominate our history books.

        We see this clearly when talking about revolutions. I’ve heard predictions of revolutions frequently during the past 50 years. As in “this cannot continue or they’ll be a revolution”. In fact history shows that “things” do often continue without revolutions. Revolutions — the French blood in the street real thing — are very very rare.

        As for the “winner take all” dynamics you mention, we have had many policy conflicts during US history, many quite deep and bitter. Almost all were settled without mass violence. The times when political processes failed loom larger in our memories, however.

        There are no PBS mini-series about the boring ones, that either faded away or were negotiated away.

  4. An article that, while I might differ from it on points, generally supports my position that the Tea Party the pro-shutdown Republicans, and the Great Republican Filibuster consists of elements that feel they need the government less than do the Democrats:

    ” Tea Party radicalism is misunderstood: Meet the “Newest Right”
    Our sense of the force currently paralyzing the government is full of misconceptions — including what to call it ”

    “The Tea Party right is not only disproportionately Southern but also disproportionately upscale. Its social base consists of what, in other countries, are called the “local notables”—provincial elites whose power and privileges are threatened from above by a stronger central government they do not control and from below by the local poor and the local working class.

    Even though, like the Jacksonians and Confederates of the nineteenth century, they have allies in places like Wisconsin and Massachusetts, the dominant members of the Newest Right are white Southern local notables—the Big Mules, as the Southern populist Big Jim Folsom once described the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce. These are not the super-rich of Silicon Valley or Wall Street (although they have Wall Street allies). The Koch dynasty rooted in Texas notwithstanding, those who make up the backbone of the Newest Right are more likely to be millionaires than billionaires, more likely to run low-wage construction or auto supply businesses than multinational corporations. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.”


    In addition to the factors cited in this article, include also the “politically incorrect”: the elements of American society that have effectively been ostracized by the force majeure of the federal judiciary and similar elements as epitomized by Roe v. Wade. Having spent more than a generation in the political wilderness, these elements have grown hardnosed in their approach to a political system that excludes many of their interests.

    All of this is obvious to anyone except for certain disingenuous social liberals, who – by the way – are also discussed in the article now cited:

    “The third misconception is that the Newest Right is irrational. The American center-left, whose white social base is among highly-educated, credentialed individuals like professors and professionals, repeatedly has committed political suicide by assuming that anyone who disagrees with its views is an ignorant “Neanderthal.” Progressive snobs to the contrary, the leaders of the Newest Right, including Harvard-educated Ted Cruz, like the leaders of any successful political movement, tend to be highly educated and well-off. The self-described members of the Tea Party tend to be more affluent and educated than the general public.”

  5. “While the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis probably ends in days or a few weeks, the lessons we learn from it can help us better manage the similar crises that lie ahead. Failure to learn and respond to these might have ugly consequences during the next decade.”

    Well, as my British friends might say…”we’re bollocksed right and proper, then.” As many of your posts point out, Americans as a whole are not particularly fond of nor good at introspection and self-analysis (in fact, that’s something of an understatement) — and sadly, it increasingly seems to go double for the individuals we insist on sending to DC.

    Unfortunately, I think this is one of the things which you have to expect when you’re living in a country largely settled and founded by political and/or religious extremists — to a significant extent, the history of our country is made up of people who were either not especially welcome in their homeland or who chose to leave because they felt that they could not bear to live alongside other groups whose values did not coincide with their own. Let’s face it…zealots are usually extremely reluctant to consider (let alone accept) the possibility that their much-cherished theories and opinions might remotely be wrong. They wouldn’t be zealots otherwise — and not only are these people who would far rather be right than be happy, they’re quite willing to see other people made unhappy (and sometimes even convince themselves that these other people actually deserve to be unhappy) if that’s what’s necessary to maintain the belief that they’re right.

    The Founders were fairly rational men, thankfully…but given the number of times as well as the ways and degrees in which people in this country have (rather conveniently) twisted and misinterpreted the principles which the Founders established in order to justify their own agendas, it often appears that the Founders may have been the exception rather than the rule.

  6. The structure of the gov is the way the Constitution protects minorities.

    The Progressives, of the left and the right, have jointly controlled both parties for a long time, at least since WWII. That has been true of all countries with advanced economies in the world.

    And everywhere the ‘minority’ social groups and economic interests are subordinated to the interests of the majority, the Status Quo, the oligarchy, the ruling elites.

    Ted Cruz is representing those minorities, which are growing as the system fails them : high taxes, incompetent gov at all levels, and failing economies.

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