When the US Congress approved US President Barack Obama’s plan to extend healthcare coverage to nearly all Americans, it marked the most important social legislation the country had seen since the 1960s. While Republican opposition remains strong, the law was a major domestic political victory for Obama.
Its enactment also has broader implications, because, like Obama’s election in 2008, it addresses questions about the health of the US’ political system. After all, it was once widely asserted that an African-American without a political machine could not become president.
Recently, many observers argued that the US’ gridlocked political system would prevent the country from translating its abundant power resources into leadership.
As one perceptive journalist recently argued, “America still has the means to address nearly any of its structural weaknesses … energy use, medical costs, the right educational and occupational mix to rebuild a robust middle class. That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: A vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke.”
Power conversion — translating power resources into effective influence — is a long-standing problem for the US. The Constitution is based on an 18th-century liberal view that power is best controlled by fragmentation and countervailing checks and balances.
In foreign policy, the US Constitution has always invited the president and Congress to struggle for control. Strong economic and ethnic pressure groups fight for their self-interested definitions of the national interest. Congress always pays attention to squeaky wheels, and special interests press it to legislate foreign-policy tactics, codes of conduct and sanctions for other countries.
As former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger once noted, “what is presented by foreign critics as America’s quest for domination is very frequently a response to domestic pressure groups.”
The cumulative effect, Kissinger continued, “drives American foreign policy toward unilateral and bullying conduct. For, unlike diplomatic communications, which are generally an invitation to dialogue, legislation translates into a take-it-or-leave-it prescription, the operational equivalent of an ultimatum.”
There is also a concern about the decline of public confidence in US institutions. This year, only one-fifth of Americans said that they trusted the government to do what is right all or most of the time. As former Clinton administration official William Galston put it, “trust is never more important than when citizens are asked to make sacrifices for a brighter future. Mistrust of the government making this request could be the harbinger — even the cause — of national decline.”
The US was founded in part on mistrust of government and a long tradition traceable to former US president Thomas Jefferson holds that Americans should not worry too much about low levels of confidence in government. When asked not about day-to-day governance but about the underlying constitutional framework, the public is positive.
Indeed, if you ask Americans where the best place to live is, 80 percent say the US. If asked whether they like their democratic system of government, 90 percent say yes. Few people believe that the system is rotten and must be overthrown.
Some aspects of the current mood are probably cyclical, while others represent discontent with political bickering and deadlock. True, when compared to the recent past, party politics has become more polarized. However, nasty politics is nothing new and much of the evidence for loss of trust in government comes from polling data, which weighs responses that are sensitive to the way questions are asked. Moreover, the sharpest decline occurred more than four decades ago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This does not imply that expressions of declining confidence in government are not problematic. Whatever the reasons for the decline, if the public becomes unwilling to provide such crucial resources as tax dollars, or to comply voluntarily with laws, or if bright young people refuse to go into government service, governmental capacity will be impaired and people will become more dissatisfied with it. A climate of distrust can also trigger extreme actions by deviant members of the population, such as the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
So far, such behavioral results do not seem to have materialized. The Internal Revenue Service sees no increase in tax cheating. By many accounts, government officials have become less corrupt than in earlier decades, and the World Bank gives the US a high score (above the 90th percentile) on “control of corruption.”
Moreover, after a 40-year drop in voting rates in presidential elections, from 62 percent to 50 percent, the decline stopped in 2000, and returned to 58 percent in 2008. Citizens’ behavior does not seem to have changed as dramatically as have their responses to poll questions. Three-quarters of Americans feel connected to their communities and say the quality of life there is excellent or good; 40 percent say working with others in their community is the most important thing that they can do.
In recent years, US politics and political institutions have become more polarized than the distribution of opinions in the US public would suggest. The situation was exacerbated by the economic downturn after 2008.
As an editorial in The Economist recently concluded, “America’s political system was designed to make legislation at the federal level difficult, not easy. Its founders believed that a country the size of America is best governed locally, not nationally … So the basic system works; but that is no excuse for ignoring areas where it could be reformed,” such as the gerrymandered safe seats in the House of Representatives and the blocking procedures of Senate rules and filibusters.
Whether the US political system can reform itself and cope with such problems remains to be seen. Obama’s healthcare victory, like his 2008 election, suggests that the US’ political system is not as broken as critics who draw analogies to the fall of Rome or other empires would have us believe.
Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University.
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