A couple of weeks ago the United States was on the edge of a crisis. Had Republicans and Democrats in Congress not come to agreement with President Obama, the United States would have run out of money and defaulted on its debts, potentially throwing the country and the world economy into a recession. This crisis would have been a result of the Congress failing give the president to raise the debt ceiling which would have authorized him to borrow money to pay America’s bills.
Note: On October 26, I will be flying to Moscow, Russia to teach at the Peoples Friendship University. I will also be giving a talk at the American Corner, Moscow. This will be my fifth trip to Moscow. At the University I will be giving several lectures. One of them is the one that I have decided to make as a blog this week.
But this near missing of a crisis came on top of one that had already occurred. On October 1, Congress and the president failed to reach agreement on a budget, forcing a partial shutdown of the government. Even though an agreement was reached, it was only temporary and the United States may be back in the same place in three months.
Moreover, as one observes the United States over the last five years while Barack Obama has been president, America has faced repeated political disagreement that seems to push the government from one internal crisis to another.
How did all this happen? To many Americans the partial governmental shutdown and the near default of the United States was hard to understand. But no doubt to people around the world, including here in the Russian Federation, it must perplexing. How could such a big and powerful country such as the United States face problems such as this? Why is the United States so divided now, and what does it all mean? How do we make sense of America?
What I would like to do today is explain American politics to you. For those of you seeking a better understanding of my country, my talk will try to give you a better picture of how our country operates and how it has changed in the last few years. In particular, I want to explain to you two things about American politics.
First, I want to briefly describe what I call the logic of American politics. By that, I want to explain how our constitutional framers designed the American political system. I will argue that the the design of our political system is meant to break up political power and slow down political change. By that, there are no real single power centers in American government and that to get anything accomplished a significant amount of political consensus is required.
Second, unfortunately that consensus has broken down. This is where I shall discuss political parties in the United States. My argument here will be that what the United States is presently experiencing is a significant political party polarization that is making it difficult to govern. This is exactly where the United States is now and it explains so much about why the county seems to be moving from crisis to crisis.
The Logic of American Politics
American politics was born out of a fear of a strong national government and the potential threat that political power could have upon the individual rights of citizens. This was a fear from American colonial experiences with King George III of England, as well as a fear of mob rule during the early years after independence. James Madison, one of the original authors of the American Constitution, once described the task of the American political system the following way.
“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.”
The issue then is how to preserve individual liberty and republican government from the threats of majority faction. This is the core problem of politics that Madison, the Federalist Papers, and the constitutional framers sought to address. Phrased otherwise, the problem, as Alexis DeTocqueville would later ask, is how can the American republic deal with the threats of the tyranny of the majority? Another way of stating it: How to balance majority rule with minority rights? How does one allow for majority opinion to rule, as it should in a popular government, but not let it become destructive, acting impulsively or rashly when threatened?
Thus, the American political system seeks to preserve individual liberty, or balance majority rule and minority rights, by placing all kinds of checks on political power. The American political system was meant to make it slow to change, for power to become centralized. The American political system has many features to break up power.
The government and election system of the United States is unique when compared to the Russian Federation as well as the rest of the world. Much of the formal structure of the government is outlined in the United States Constitution, with additional national, state, and local laws articulating both the structural and electoral systems for the country.
The first two defining characteristics of the United States are that it is a separation of powers government, not parliamentary, and it is also a federal and not a unitary government. Both of these factors mean that political power in the United States is divided up among three national branches of government and between a national government and 50 states. The purpose of this division of power is to protect minority rights, respect local decision making, and also to ensure that no one institution has too much political power. This type of governing system also means that it is difficult to achieve significant political change in a short period of time, thereby encouraging the likelihood that elections will not produce dramatic changes in policy or political direction.
Unlike a parliamentary system, separation of powers means that the president of the United States is elected separately from Congress. The president serves both as head of state and head of the government. Yet in America the president presides only over the executive branch of the government, with the legislative branch (Congress) headed by its own officers. Because of the separate elections, it is entirely possible for the president to be of one political party, with Congress having a majority controlled by a different party or parties. This is called divided government in the United States, and such a governing arrangement is not uncommon in the United States.
Being a federal system means that there is in reality no national election for Congress. The lower chamber of Congress is the House of Representatives, consisting of 535 members who represent districts spread across the 50 states. Each district is on the same population. There are 100 members of the Senate, with each of the states allocated two senators. House terms are for two years and Senate for six. In 2012, the entire 535 members of the House of Representatives was up for re-election, while only 33 of the Senators are up for re-election. Because of the structure of Congress, effectively all of the elections for Congress are really local elections. Thus, think of 2012 as a situation where there was one national election for president and 568 local elections for Congress.
There is no proportional representation in Congress. The United States has a Westminster type of elections—whoever receives the most votes in a congressional election is declared the winner. Additionally, because of this type of system, third parties generally are not strong and therefore the United States is a two party system where at present Republicans and Democrats are in competition with one another. Whichever party has the most members in the House or Senate controls that chamber.
The reason why all this is important is that it is possible to have several variations of party control in the United States. One could have a situation where the president and both houses of Congress are controlled by the same party. This was the case when George Bush was president from 2003 to 2007. This occurred again in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president. But it is also possible to have the president be from one party and Congress controlled by another. This again occurred under George Bush from 2007 until 2009. Another scenario is when the president and one legislative chamber are controlled by one party and the other chamber is controlled by another. This is currently the cases in the United States.
There are major differences between the two houses of Congress in terms of their constitutional authority and how they operate. However, in both chambers, it is generally possible for a minority slow down or stop legislation from passing. Again, in theory the idea for this is to protect individual liberty or ensure political agreement on major issues.
Finally, in addition to the United States dividing up power at the national level, America is also a federal system where power is divided among 50 subunits of government that we call states. Within the states there are cities and other local governments. Overall, political power in America is highly divided and in order to make any significant political change there needs to be basic consensus and agreement. No one, not even the president, can simply order things to be done.
Party Divide in the United States
American politics also operates with party competition. The two major parties, the Republicans and Democrats, while they have historically disagreed on some issues, really shared some basic agreement on the role of government in our society. Moreover, the two major parties, up until recently, were less ideologically polarized 20 years ago.
American political parties used to be more coalitional and regional than they are now. Parties were more likely to be mixed ideologically. When I grew up in New York in the 1960s my governor was Republican Nelson Rockefeller. One Senator was Republican Jacob Javits, the other was Democrat Bobby Kennedy. The most liberal? Javits. The most conservative, Kennedy.
We have seen in the United States a disappearance of moderates in the two parties. There is a rise of straight party line votes in the Congress. The Republicans have become more conservative, the Democrats slightly more liberal. But more importantly, the Republican Party has seen the rise of the Tea Party faction, a group of ultra-conservative people who are pulling the Republicans further to the right. The Tea Party also is less likely to believe in compromise, and they do not believe that shutting down the government is necessarily a bad thing. It was the influence of the Tea Party in the House of Representatives that significantly caused the partial governmental shutdown and the near default.
But the party divide in America is part of a larger social divide in the United States. The Democrats and Republicans are a tale of two parties The Republicans are older, whiter, male, more Christian, and part of the Silent generation along with some older Boomers. They vote against gay marriage, abortion, immigration, and favor smaller government. The Democrats are younger, more female, less white, less Christian, and they represent the Millennials and Gen Xers. They favor gay rights, choice, immigration and diversity, and more government. The two parties represent two generations and world views, and party of the intensity right now is a demographic contest witnessing the passing of power from one generation to another. It also represents a racial polarization the greatest since 1988, and an identity shift as America moves from a White Christian nation to something else.
In addition politics and geography now overlay and intersect. There is a political sorting of living space by politics and geography. We increasingly have Democrat and Republican neighborhoods. We are divided politically by rural and urban. The result is a decline in the number of real marginal or swing districts and such a problem is only accentuated by redistricting in some states (or conversely, even the best redistricting cannot overcome the political sorting we are experiencing). There are only 50 or so competitive seats in Congress. The remainder are certainties for either of the two major parties. Partisan districts create less incentive to compromise, reinforcing polarization.
So what does this discussion of the American political system and changing party structure mean in terms of understanding the United States?
The partisan divide and political polarization that has emerged in the United States over the last 20 years has become very serious since Barack Obama was elected president. America appears to be a politically divided country where there is no real consensus on some core issues about what government should do. But even if there were consensus, the logic or structure of the American political system is being manipulated by a minority of the population to pursue its goals.
This is not a problem that James Madison envisioned. He and the others who wrote the American constitution did not anticipate that a minority could be so powerful that it could affect the country the way it does now. Nor did Madison and the framers envision a country perhaps so divided on some basic political values or issues.
Barack Obama’s presidency is about generational change and in part the reason why the country is so divided is because we are witnessing a beginning of a significant generational shift in American politics.
In the near future the United States will continue to face political division. But over the longer term the changing demographics or population of the United States may resolve this problem. As one generation dies off and is replaced by another, the United States will see a change values and perhaps, then, a new consensus will emerge about where the country should go.
At top: Picture of me in 2012 in front of Peoples Friendship University with Professor Daria Stanis, my host.