USA: checks and balances in the age of chaos

by Jonathan Todd

“I don’t want to talk to anyone about anything right now,” she exploded. With tears in her eyes, she retreated to a back room.

This was how the Democratic congresswoman Barbara Jordan, an eloquent contributor to the committee that voted to impeach President Nixon, reacted to a request for comment immediately after the vote. This request came from Michael Sandel, later a distinguished philosopher, then a newspaper intern.

Sandel recalled this encounter when the House began impeachment proceedings against President Clinton in 1998. While Barbara Jordan’s explosion demonstrated that even Democrats opposed to Nixon recognised the magnitude of impeachment, partisan passions against Clinton overrode any such recognition on the part of many Republicans 24 years later. 13 years hence, and the trends evidenced by the contrasting attitudes of Democrats to Nixon and Republicans to Clinton have hardly dissipated.

Many Republicans today would throw a tea party on the White House lawn, rather than discretely sob, if president Obama were impeached. This is in spite of the fact that impeachment should only properly occur when the constitutional system is seriously threatened. No matter that such a threat is inherently a matter of national tribulation; glee could be expected from those who seem consumed only by tribalism. The “Nazi Socialist Communist Muslim” would have got his comeuppance.

Watergate wrenched the scales from America’s eyes. But not so long prior to this, president Kennedy had private morals loose enough to make a French politician blush. These foibles weren’t widely known and he was revered, if for nothing else, simply for being the holder of the office that he held. Now these indiscretions are dramatised like an episode of keeping up with the Kardashians. The age of deference is gone and politicians are swept along on a tell-all celebrity tide.

While Obama retains a scholarly air, there is something rather tell-all about arriving in office with two autobiographies behind you. More significant than Obama’s willingness to tell-all, is the number of Americans for whom no matter how much he tells, his truths will never be accepted. And no matter how much he compromises, these compromises will never be reciprocated. He is someone they refuse to try to understand and who they are incapable of dealing with in good faith.

Lots of Tories felt the same way about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The difference is that these prime ministers never had to win a proportion of their opponents over to get their way. They had a majority in the Commons, and the Lords only ever resisted for so long. In contrast, Obama’s party has no majority in the House or filibuster majority in the Senate.

The political pendulum swings more violently in majoritarian systems such as ours. The checks and balances restrain it in the US. Part of the reason that I support a second chamber elected by PR in the UK is because a somewhat more democratic restraint on the executive would be to the benefit of our system. The US now appears, however, a case study in what can go wrong when this restraint is too sharp. With Republicans so trenchantly refusing to play ball with Obama, the pendulum rests not on a radical centre, a cross-dressed mix of the best of Democrat and Republican ideas, but upon dysfunction.

The checks and balances hardwire the necessity of reaching across the aisle into the American system. Yet Washington DC has become increasingly dominated by politicians as dogmatic as the hardest edged British whips. It’s not just a matter of not compromising with the enemy for many, but not compromising with reality either.

In reality managing US debt requires tax rises. In reality immigration reform must include pathways to citizenship for the 11m illegal immigrants slogging away in the US economy. In reality Obama’s health care reform looks remarkably like the proposals with which Republicans countered Hilary Clinton’s plans in the 1990s, not the road to serfdom. In reality prices have risen at the pumps but remain a fraction of European levels, environmentally unsustainable and only likely to continue to rise given finite supply. In reality Obama is a prisoner of the Republican refusal to accept reality. The debt ceiling fiasco isn’t an exception, but indicative of a deeper malaise.

The genius of the founding fathers was that in less partisan times radical centres could be found and that checks and balances restrained government before it did too much damage to the extraordinary entrepreneurial, industrious and proud American people. Powerful though these qualities remain on the part of the people, America faces new challenges that it won’t meet without improved public policy. Its checks and balances will prevent this so long as the civic decency and ability to see the national interest of Barbara Jordan is in so short a supply.

This is a conundrum that only those confident of the capacity of Europe and China to extend freedom globally can be sanguine about. In other words, it would be foolhardy not to be concerned.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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