July 28, 2017 (San Diego) Last night there was high drama in the United States Senate. The so called “skinny repeal” ultimately failed when three Republican Senators defected from their party. These were Lisa Murkowsky from Alaska, Susan Collins from Maine and John McCain from Arizona. They voted it down for different reasons. Collins and Murkowsly did so to protect the expansion of Medicaid, which is essential for their constituents. McCain did so because this was simply bad policy. He did not accept assurances from Speaker Paul Ryan that this bill would not become law either.
However, the last six months have laid bare some of the very serious weaknesses of the political system we function under. As much as we like to tell ourselves how superior the American system is, it has many problems and they are encoded in the Constitution. Don’t get me wrong, this was state of the art in 1789. It no longer is. This is why countries are no longer modeling their own Constitutions on ours. There was a time that was the case. For example, Mexico’s first constitution, in 1824, was the US Constitution almost word for word. By 1917, after the Revolution and a century of recurrent civil wars and a few foreign interventions, the model used was no longer the American document. Rather, Mexico modeled the new document, that remains in effect to this day, on European documents.
There are good reasons for this. The first has been laid bare over the last six months. The bipartisan political system is encoded in the Constitution with the winner take all System. However, i will argue that neither Republicans or Democrats are a single party, even if nominally they are. Their internal factions would be separate political parties under a proportional representation system. For the Democrats there are at least two major parties within the nominalheading of Democrats. These are the Neoliberals, who are to the center right of the political spectrum, and dominate policy within the party at this point. And then there are the progressives, who are barely center left, with a few Social Democrats, who would be slightly to the left of the Progressives. We are using the standard post French Revolution political line model for this exercise.
Republicans could not find consensus because they are even more divided. The factions in the party are among the Tea Party-Libertarian wing. This group seeks to reduce the government to just one function. This is national defense. If that was not in the Constitution we suspect they would leave that to the states as well. For this group liberty means the ability to do anything they want to enhance and protect property rights. Why any form of regulation is a problem. Any regulations will infringe on their property and the protection of such. Why government run healthcare, even Romneycare, which is the model for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is a problem. It is a philosophical problem. They simply do not want any form of government intervention, even one modeled by the Heritage Foundation.
There is also a far more moderate faction in the party. One that is economically conservative, but does see a role for government in the economy. This faction is represented by people like Collins and Murkowsky and a few other members in the Senate and the House. In the House this is the Tuesday Morning Group, led by Charlie Dent. If you were looking at this from the Perspective of the United Kingdom, you are looking at Tories and New Liberals as a rough equivalent. In the British system the New liberals are not unlike the Neoliberals of the Democratic Party. Yes, the moderates in the GOP have a lot more in common with the center rights democrats than with Libertarians in their own conference.
This is the other problem Republicans are revealing. They are not used to running the country, just to being an opposition party. They got into bad habits over the course of the Barack Obama administration. Anything the president proposed, even if it was something that conformed to Republican principles, like the ACA, they opposed. Partly it was racism. But partly this was the Tea Party and the Libertarian wing of the party that was ascendant. They did not come to Washington to run the country, or cooperate with either moderate Republicans or Democrats of any stripe to get good policy enacted. They came to Washington to make the system as dysfunctional as possible. While Democrats share some of the blame, like passing the ACA on a party line vote, these Libertarians had one goal, and one goal only. This is to weaken the reach of the Federal government and destroy all kinds of regulations they consider a danger to them.
The political system as exists demands compromise. When there is no compromise the government becomes paralyzed. The last time the country saw this level of paralysis was before the Civil War. Then it was Southern state representatives and Senators (Senators were appointed by state governors) who came to Washington to protect property rights. They followed the ideology of John C Calhoun, and the property at stake back then were slaves. These days it is fossil fuels, and yes, healthcare and a private system that libertarians seek to protect from any government intervention. These days many of these Senators and representatives also come from the South and Western States. The irony is that these are members of the GOP, which was formed by former Whigs that could not abide by Calhoun’s toxic ideology that has been embraced by people like the Koch brothers.
The question though is whether Democrats will do the same to President Donald Trump as Republicans did to Obama? If this happens the paralyzed system we live under will only become far more dysfunctional. Trump is not flexible. He believes he has the power of a king, not a president. That has some dangers. But parties, both in power and the minority, must remember that our system of government does not function when there is no compromise.
However, as long as we have a large group of legislators that do not believe there is any role for government, beyond defense, we will continue to go down this road of paralysis and dysfunction. Republicans do not know how to govern. In many ways neither do Democrats. We also have a slowly growing constitutional crisis due to Russia-Gate. The clear losers in all this are the American people. There are winners as well. Chiefly the Russian Federation and China. Both are rising powers, and a dysfunctional United States that is utterly paralyzed helps them.
These divisions are not going away. This will make the act of governing harder. It will continue to freeze the country.