Politics & Policy

Powers, Separated on Purpose

The Constitution actually encourages gridlock.

A political cartoon, published in a newspaper at some point in the early 1990s, has long been burned into my memory. In it, newly elected President Clinton is being shown around the White House by a man in a butler’s uniform. Clinton arrives at a wall on which sit an abundance of political levers and buttons and, thrilled, his eyes widen. Yet he is quickly disappointed. “Sorry, sir,” the orderly’s speech bubble reads, “but these are all connected to Congress.”

The brinkmanship, gridlock, and rancor that the fight over the continuing resolution has yielded is disliked, at least in some manner, by almost everyone involved. But opinions as to what might be done about it vary wildly. On Friday, Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews provided a suggestion: Americans, he wrote, “oughta start thinking seriously about how to prevent divided government from ever happening again.”

This is not partisan posturing. On the contrary, Matthews earnestly and consistently believes that America’s system is intrinsically unviable, and that it is to blame for our current predicament. And he is tapping into a sentiment that is reasonably popular among his peers. The last time that the United States teetered toward a shutdown or a default, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias wrote at length about what he regards as the “long-simmering problems with the basic structure of American political institutions.” Were Yglesias to draw the next panel of the old cartoon, he would presumably have Clinton do some rewiring.

This line is not a new one. Hostility toward America’s rigid separation of powers has a rich, if unappealing, history on the Left. Woodrow Wilson — a man whose animus to the constitutional order that he had sworn to uphold approached almost treasonable levels — was savvy enough to recognize that the expansive long-term ambitions of the Progressive movement were simply incompatible with the country’s founding documents. In consequence, Wilson proposed, Americans should change their expectations of government, invest their democratic ambitions in one man (the president), and abandon the country’s messy political settlement in favor of a streamlined and “efficient” state that was more akin to that in the Kaiser’s Germany or in the King’s Britain. “The Constitution,” Wilson wrote, “was not made to fit us like a straitjacket. In its elasticity lies its chief greatness.”

While his insistence that the Constitution was not supposed to be a “straitjacket” is incorrect, Wilson and his descendants are correct in their basic complaint: Separation of powers is inefficient; it is an obstacle to substantial change; and it will not only “allow” gridlock but it is explicitly designed to encourage it. Where they are wrong is to conclude that this should change with the times. The Constitution is the product of abiding insight into politics — an insight that does not change with the wind. Rather amazingly, Yglesias claims the opposite to be the case: The problem of gridlock, he wrote in 2011, stems directly from the Founders’ having had “little in the way of experience to guide them in thinking about how political institutions would evolve.”

This is not simply untrue, it is the perfect opposite of the truth. Having watched the radical transformation of the British system during the 17th and 18th centuries — and studied undulations of the classical world, for good measure — most of the Founders were strikingly well versed in political theory. The introduction of limiting tools such as the rule of law, term restrictions, a codified constitution, a bill of rights, and divided government were intended to dispense with the presumption, famously termed “elective dictatorship” by Lord Hailsham, that the man who is voted in as leader every four or so years should have carte blanche to get things done. In other words, the Founders sought to block precisely what Yglesias and his cohorts covet. Nobody is perfect, of course, but I would wager everything I own that the architects of America were more au courant with the vagaries of human nature and the concentrating tendency of political actors than are the writers at Slate.

In some respects, Wilson has got his wish. Witness, for example, the peculiar manner in which many citizens, journalists, and legislators have presumed that Obama’s wishes for the congressionally designed budget should be the national starting point. Why? Because he won election to head up the executive branch, obviously! It seems that our debate has been upside-down from the start: Constitutionally speaking, if any elections should suggest the direction of the budget and of the laws, they are the 435 that determine the composition of the House. Alas, this no longer appears to be the case.

The truth that dare not speak its name is that the pronounced disharmony on show in the United States has a clear root cause — and it is not the structure of government. Democrats who complain that the House is being particularly obstinate are absolutely correct — it is. But rarely do they stop and ask “Why?” It seems obvious to me that at the root of our interminable trench warfare is the fact that one party made the regrettable decision to push through the most controversial piece of social legislation in a century without a single opposition vote. That party was, of course, entirely within its rights to do this when unified government presented them with the chance. Nevertheless, it is childish for it to complain that, the other side having been given a clear mandate to try to undo the measure, it is now doing just that. Elections do indeed “have consequences” — and that means all of them.

Critics of the United States correctly, if oddly, point out that the system of separated powers works only here. “We are the only country in the world in which . . .” is a typically witless refrain. In South America, where presidential democracies have been tried, gridlock has customarily led to the president “speaking for the people” by ordering a military coup and removing from the equation the legislators who demonstrated the temerity to serve as a check and a balance.

As a result of its mature political heritage and its British roots, the United States was spared this trend, blossoming quickly into a country in which the conflict that usually results from divided government is virtuously accepted by the people as the price of liberty. In America, Yale’s Juan Linz argues, strife that has led to violence in less-developed nations has become regarded as “normal.” Make no mistake: Dylan Matthews and his myopic ilk would unashamedly like to change this, rendering illegitimate the positions of the minority and subjugating the exquisite fractiousness of Congress to the imperium of a national leader. This is, of course, a prerogative they enjoy as free men. But there is nothing “progressive” about it at all.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.


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