In the past couple of weeks, as the fight over the debt-ceiling careered toward the breaking point, we heard a familiar refrain: “The system is broken!”
It is a sentiment echoed by Paul Krugman in Monday’s New York Times. Krugman argues that what the Republicans have “gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question.” Such doubts will undoubtedly be music to the ears of Tom Friedman, who in 2009 infamously extolled the virtues of a system in which “one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.” Friedman was referring to China, but one cannot help wondering whether he would be as happy as his colleague Krugman to see the Republicans done away with too. That way, America could finally be run by those lucky enough to be “reasonably enlightened.”
This is a perennial argument — one that raises its head whenever gridlock occurs in the District of Columbia — and one that needs revisiting frequently. It is all too easy to look at the United States and to dismiss the system when it fails to deliver what we want. But to do so is to train our fire at the wrong target. If anybody is at fault, it is the people, both those we elect to represent us, and ourselves.
“Our Constitution,” said John Adams, “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Likewise, Congress. When a rogue American dons a white hood and sets fire to a cross, it makes sense to blame the perpetrator for abusing his liberty, not liberty itself. And so it is with the “system.” It is not the fault of the buildings in Washington that the United States is in debt, but the people inside them. And if those people have trouble fixing it, it is they who deserve our opprobrium, and we who need to reevaluate our decision to put them there.
Very well, but what of the rancor? The discord? The partisanship? The politics? Like George Washington, we are quick to dismiss “politics.” This is naïve. Conflict in politics is not only inevitable; it is axiomatically imperative. Politics is division. Political parties do not exist arbitrarily, but are a rational, practical response to dispute. As long as we keep our republic — and in fact even if we do not — people will form cliques in order to forward their agendas. The only way to remove the need for parties, and the disruption they cause, is to remove the capacity for disagreement completely. One cannot help but suspect that for some who claim to find antagonism so tiring, this is the latent desire.
Contra Krugman and Co., the alternative to raucous constitutional democracy is unappealing in these quarters. The cacophonous noise, argument, and hysteria that has characterized Washington over the last few weeks is not, in fact, a sign that the system is broken, but that it is working — this is what is supposed to happen. The federal government was designed to divide power, and to set factions and branches against one another. Our founding fathers made a conscious and reasoned attempt at blunting the unifying edges of the British parliamentary system in favor of Montesquieu’s separation of powers. It was deliberate and it was wise, but it is not always pretty.
This is politics, not ballet. Representative government should be a noisy process. But for all the system’s flaws, we should be pleased that the sound we hear on C-SPAN is of bickering and argument and debate, rather than the eerie silence of enforced acquiescence or the boisterous failure of gunfire. It should be enough that we can resolve our differences peaceably without expecting tranquility.
Herein lies the fundamental problem with the reflexive reaction of Krugman, Friedman, and their ilk, and with those who appear to covet the efficacy of the supposedly “enlightened” dictatorship in China: Enlightenment is a relative term, and it is invariably claimed by both sides. The United States was founded on the principle that there is no permanent enlightened class — we would be fools to throw our respect for that away when things get tough.
When we hear the likes of Bill Clinton, who revealed recently that were he still president and afflicted with a Congress incapable of acting decisively, he would invoke the 14th Amendment “without hesitation, and force the courts to stop [him],” we should hear his words for what they are. Clinton is not far from saying, as Friedman did, that this is too important an issue to leave to the constitutional system of government. “If it came to that,” Clinton warned, he would step in.
No, should be our reply. No you won’t. One tests the strength of a system in difficult times, not when things are rosy. The virtues of American liberty do not vanish upon the instant when the outcomes are undesirable, nor are they conditional upon neat and efficient resolutions. We are all angry with one thing or other, but it is worth remembering that America has survived far worse without pulling itself apart from the inside. It might be messy, but the system is in good shape.
— Charlie Cooke is an editorial intern at National Review.