We Americans like to think that our form of constitutional democracy is the best form of government ever invented. But what if the Constitution is actually contributing to the current government shutdown and political standoff? That’s the thesis of a fascinating Wonkbklog essay by Dylan Matthews. Matthews points out that our separate executive and legislative branches were designed to serve as checks on one another, but this strategy doesn’t work as well when the branches are controlled by opposing hyper-polarized political parties. As polarization increases, so do the odds of an irreconcilable standoff like what we’re seeing today. And the Constitution doesn’t provide a tie-breaker.
Voters also have a difficult time determining whom to hold responsible when things go wrong. Is the shutdown the fault of the House? The Senate? The President? In most other democracies, the majority party controls both the executive and legislative branches, so it’s easy for people to register their approval or disapproval of the government. Here, we punish or reward whoever happens to be up for election in that cycle.
I’m not arguing for a wholesale reinvention of American government. But it’s difficult to ignore the increasing dysfunction in Washington and perhaps it’s time to consider some tweaks to our system. Despite claims to the contrary, the Constitution is not a holy text and treating it as such may lead to our downfall.