Is America’s democracy broken?

April 15, 2013

With the release of the president’s budget, Washington has once again descended into partisan squabbling. There is in America today pervasive concern about the basic functioning of our democracy. Congress is viewed less favorably than ever before in the history of public opinion polling. Revulsion at political figures unable to reach agreement on measures that substantially reduce prospective budget deficits is widespread. Pundits and politicians alike condemn gridlock as angry movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party emerge on both sides of the political spectrum, and partisanship seems to become ever more pervasive.

All this comes at a time of great challenge. Profound changes, as emerging economies led by China converge toward the West, will redefine the global order. Beyond the current economic downturn, which is surely the most serious since the Great Depression, lies the even more serious challenge of the rise of technologies that may well raise average productivity but displace large numbers of workers. Public debt is running up in a way that is without precedent except in times of all-out war. And a combination of the share of the population that is aged and the rising relative price of public services such as healthcare and education pressure future budgets.

Anyone who has worked in a political position in Washington has had ample experience with great frustration. Almost everyone involved with public policy feels as I do that there is much that is essential yet infeasible in the current political environment. Yet context is important. Concerns about gridlock are a near-constant in American political history and in important respects reflect desirable checks and balances; much more progress is occurring in key sectors than is usually acknowledged; and American decision making, for all its flaws, stands up well in global comparison.

It is a commonplace that the missing center makes political compromise impossible. Many yearn for a return to what they imagine as an earlier era when centrists in both parties had overlapping opinions and negotiated bipartisan compromises that moved the country forward. Yet fears about the functioning of our government like those expressed today have been recurring features of the political landscape since Patrick Henry’s 1791 assertion that the spirit of the revolution had been lost. It’s sobering to consider the degree of concern about paralysis that gripped Washington during the early 1960s when the prevailing diagnosis was that a lack of cohesive and responsible parties precluded the clear electoral verdicts necessary for decisive action. While there was a flurry of legislation passed in the 1964-66 period after a Democratic landslide, what followed were the cleavages associated with Vietnam and then Watergate, all leading to President Jimmy Carter’s famous declaration of a crisis of the national spirit. Whatever the view today, there was hardly high rapport in Washington during the term of Ronald Reagan. President Bill Clinton worked hard to establish rapport and compromise with a Congress controlled by the opposition only to be impeached by the House of Representatives after a bitter struggle.

Intense division and slow change have been the norms rather than the exceptions. While often frustrating, this has not always been a bad thing. Probably there were too few not too many checks and balances as the United States entered the Vietnam and Iraq wars. By my lights and that of many others, there should have been more checks and balances on the huge tax cuts of 1981, 2001 and 2003 or on unpaid-for entitlement expansions at any number of junctures. Most experts would agree that it is a good thing that politics thwarted the effort to establish a guaranteed annual income in the late 1960s and early 1970s or the effort to put in place what would today be called a single-payer healthcare system in the 1970s.

The great mistake of the gridlock theorists is to suppose that all progress comes from legislation and that more legislation consistently represents more progress. While these are seen as years of gridlock, consider what has happened in the past five years. The United States moved faster to contain a systemic financial crisis than any country facing such a crisis has moved in the last generation. Through all the fractiousness, enough change has taken place that without further policy action, the debt-gross domestic product ratio is expected to decline for the next five years. Beyond that the outlook depends largely on healthcare costs, but growth there has slowed to the rate of GDP growth for three years now, the first such slowdown in nearly half a century. At last, universal healthcare is in sight. Within a decade, it is likely that the United States will no longer be a net importer of fossil fuels. Financial regulation is not in a fully satisfactory place but has received its most substantial overhaul in 75 years. Most public schools and those who teach in them are for the first time evaluated on objective metrics of student performance. Gay marriage has become widely accepted across the states.

No remotely comparable list can be put forth for Japan or Western Europe. Yes, change comes rapidly to some of the authoritarian societies of Asia. But it may not endure and may not always be for the better. Anyone prone to pessimism would do well to ponder the alarm with which the United States viewed the Soviet Union after Sputnik or Japan in the early 1990s. It is the capacity for self-denying prophecy of doom that is one of America’s greatest strengths.

None of this is to say that we do not face huge challenges. The challenges, though, are less of getting to agreement where the answer is clear than of finding solutions to problems like rising inequality or global climate change, where the path is uncertain. That is not a problem of gridlock — it is a problem of vision.


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This July is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, that was a major crisis, not the p-ing match over ObamaCare. None the less, you simply can’t allow the legislature, be it controlled by either party, to have access to money. Monopolies are inefficient, self-justifying, and eventually more trouble than they are worth. Factor in a few constituencies and here we are.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

“It is the capacity for self-denying prophecy of doom that is one of America’s greatest strengths”

Its more sophisticated than that – its the self-correcting infrastructure of this system that sustains it for the long term.

“That is not a problem of gridlock — it is a problem of vision.”

Vision only goes so far when its execution is impaired by the gridlock by the ones in power. Over time, the opposing forces will be diminished by the self correcting system in favor of the sustained vision of public good and ecological balance. And this is the change we are seeing in current times.

“Financial regulation .. has received its most substantial overhaul in 75 years. Most public schools and those who teach in them are for the first time evaluated on objective metrics of student performance..”

Right on in proper acknowledgement of the positive changes.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

The gridlock is one of the things that preserves our Republic, so I definitely look at it as a good thing.

What’s broken in our democratic process is the influence those with vast fortunes have. He with the biggest campaign coffer wins. It’s as simple as that. Special interests get their chosen candidate elected 95% of the time, so long as their chosen candidate has more money than the other guy. Until our elections are publicly funded and allow each candidate equal exposure, the TBTF banks, the big oil companies, and above all, the healthcare industry, will continue to own our government lock, stock, and barrel.

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive

100% Democracy is broken… What are Americans going to do about it? Most are too sissified and will continue with the “ignorance is bliss” logic. Men in our country for the most part wear panties… sad!

Posted by Lemming | Report as abusive

Lemming says it harshly but correctly. The elected officials were elected. If you want to be ignorant and led by liars you will be.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

gee Larry, How many Lobbyists are on the ballot? The majority of the electorate is blissfully unaware of how their votes are nothing but a popularity contest based on 30 second TV quips of meaningless promise. Hope I’m around the day they find out.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Mr. Summers says:
“And American decision making, for all its flaws, stands up well in global comparison”

From this header, I mentioned at the breakfast table that Larry Summers thinks democracy is doing fine in America.

My wife’s answer: Maybe around his house!

That is, “Let them eat cake.

As Jameson4Lunch says, the destruction of any semblance of a democracy has been accomplished by the 1 percent (or less). They have bought our country’s government. The richer they get, the more complete their hold on our government.

Does Mr. Summers think it is OK to conduct wars against hapless countries at huge cost to our people, and much greater costs even to the subjects of our wars? Does Mr. Summers think that forcing, or attempting to force other country’s politics to act according to what our leaders want, is democracy, or even any semblance of democracy.

I think a better case can be made that Iran has a much more vibrant democracy than we do. At least, they have some morality build into their system.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

“Financial regulation is not in a fully satisfactory place but has received its most substantial overhaul in 75 years.”

–says the guy who fought and bullied Brooksley Born when she wanted to regulate financial derivatives–a major contributor to our recent economic meltdown and current malaise. Way to go, Larry, you huckster.

Posted by AceRedgate | Report as abusive

Real democracy: the last page of your tax return would be a form that looks a lot like the chart above, and people could allocate how they want their tax money to be spent.

Hint: if this actually happened, defense allocations would probably not exceed the sum of everything else.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

yeahhhhhhh… I’m looking at your handy chart there.

with its huge out-of-scale “defense” spending bar.

And all I can think is: GOD WE’RE DUMB!

We’re still hovering around maximum stupid.

Posted by bryanX | Report as abusive

Wow, “most experts agree” that wasting $280 Billion dollars a year and having 15,000 more infant deaths a year and living shorter sicker lives is better than what we would have had with universal health care? What kind of experts are they and what health insurance companies do they work for? A clear comparison can be made between America and Canada, where they went to universal health care in 1971. Canada wins every single category. Their life expectancy increased faster, infant mortality dropped farther and faster, costs are way lower, emergency room waits are shorter…
More and more “expert” is becoming a synonym for “person who is always wrong.”

Posted by tribalpeace | Report as abusive

Just in referring to the the American political process as a ‘Democracy’… And not raising eyebrows, is proof of how broken the REPUBLIC is.

Posted by RichLaDuca | Report as abusive

It is incorrect that teachers are being evaluated on the basis of objective metrics for the first time.

Posted by JamesSutton | Report as abusive

The intention and goals are already defined.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive