About 50% of the readers of this blog are located outside the United States. This particular post is directed primarily towards this audience. It is a simple attempt to explain to the outsider how political processes in the U.S. came to be as absurd as they now are. But readers in the U.S. would do well to read this post as a reminder of just how we came to have the mess that we now have.
Democracy, especially American democracy, is a very inefficient system. And it was designed to be. Our organs of government are so cumbersome that it is nearly impossible to make any rapid changes, especially changes in important socio-economic arrangements. This state of affairs did not simply happen. It was deliberately designed to be the way it is.
In most parliamentary democracies, a single chamber can pass bills by a simple majority vote---and they become law. In the United States, to become law, a bill must pass both houses of Congress, and also be approved by the President. So to make any change, a party must simultaneously control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and also the Presidency. Yet no shift in voter allegiance will quickly change control of the Senate, since the six- year terms are staggered, with only one third of the seats up for vote every two years. So to take control of the Senate, a party would have to win the support of a majority of voters in a majority of states---and then keep that majority for six straight years.
But the Senate is not apportioned according to population. Each of the 50 states, no matter how large or small their population, gets exactly two senators. North Dakota gets the same representation as New York. But sparsely populated rural states are usually fairly conservative and rarely shift their political allegiances. If this situation weren't absurd enough, the Senate itself has established rules that requires a 60% vote to bring any bill to a final vote. And even a landslide shift in voter sympathy will not usually produce an electoral result where either party controls 60% of the seats in the Senate.
Barack Obama was elected by an overwhelming majority, and in his first two years, his party had a majority in both houses. But they did not quite have a 60% super-majority in the Senate. So the Republican minority in the Senate was able to block most significant legislation, and very little got done. Then, in two years, the Republicans rode to victory in the House, riding a wave of voter anger. What were the voters angry about? They were angry that nothing was getting done. The same Republican obstructionists who prevented action were able to whip up resentment of the inaction which they themselves had caused, and ride it to victory. How could voters be stupid enough to fall for such an idiotic game? In any country, about half the voters pay no attention to government until a week before the election. The other half pays intense attention to government, and knows exactly what's happening. But the Republican Party was not worried about alienating this faction because they vote for Democrats anyway. In America, almost no one with an I.Q. higher than his sock size ever votes Republican, except for the billionaires who own and control that party.
In my lifetime, I have seen Democrats strive to deliver all of the progressive things I ever thought this country needed--- universal health care, free higher education, fairer distribution of income, public transportation, and much more. All of these goals were shared by a majority of voters, but none it ever happened. Many times, the Democrats have controlled the presidency and had a simple majority in both houses. Yet they were stopped every time by Republican obstructionists. The basic social safety net goals laid out by Roosevelt 70 years ago have still not become a reality, even though they are standard in nearly every country in Western Europe. To me, this has been deeply disappointing.
And yet, if I could change our inefficient system, I'm not sure I would. Why? Because while there have been many times when good programs have been thwarted by obstructionism, there have also been times when some pretty evil initiatives have been thwarted as well. Over the last generation, the billionaires who own and control the Republican party have often had in their grasp the presidency and a slim majority in both houses. And they advanced an agenda of unspeakable evil. They attempted to loot and destroy our Social Security system (they called it "privatizing.") They tried to break unions, with the goal of eventually outlawing them. They tried to take total control of our educational institutions and turn them into right-wing propaganda machines. They tried to de-fund any government support for public health care, so that any sick person who could not pay for treatment would be abandoned to die. And these were just their publically proclaimed goals. Who knows what their secret agenda may have been? But none of it ever happened, at least on the scale which they had intended. Because liberals can obstruct the wheels injustice just as easily as conservatives can obstruct the wheels of justice.In the future, there will certainly be moments when the evil-doers are back in the saddle. And when that moment comes, we will be well served by the inefficiency which the founders engineered into our system. Behold; the obstructers shall become the obstructed.