American political system is working fine

August 13, 2011


— Of all the endlessly repeated conventional wisdom in today’s Washington, the most lazy, stupid and ubiquitous is that our politics is broken. On the contrary. Our political system is working well (I make no such claims for our economy), indeed, precisely as designed — profound changes in popular will translated into law that alters the nation’s political direction.

The process has been messy, loud, disputatious and often rancorous. So what? In the end, the system works. Exhibit A is Wisconsin. Exhibit B is Washington itself.

The story begins in 2008. The country, having lost confidence in Republican governance, gives the Democrats full control of Washington. The new president, deciding not to waste a crisis, attempts a major change in the nation’s ideological trajectory. Hence his two signature pieces of legislation: a near-$1 trillion stimulus, the largest spending bill in galactic history; and a health care reform that places one-sixth of the economy under federal control.

In a country where conservatives outnumber liberals 2-1, this causes a reaction. In the 2010 midterms, Democrats suffer a massive repudiation at every level. In Washington, Democrats suffer the greatest loss of House seats since 1948. In the states, they lose over 700 state legislative seats — the largest reversal ever — resulting in the loss of 20 state chambers.

The tea-party-propelled, debt-conscious Republicans then move to confront their states’ unsustainable pension and health care obligations — most boldly in Wisconsin, where the new governor proposes a radical reorientation of the power balance between public-sector unions and elected government.

In Madison, the result is general mayhem — drum-banging protesters, frenzied unions, statehouse occupations, opposition legislators fleeing the state to prevent a quorum. A veritable feast of creative democratic resistance.

In the end, however, they fail. The legislation passes.

Then, further resistance. First, Democrats turn an otherwise sleepy state Supreme Court election into a referendum on the union legislation, the Democrats’ candidate being widely expected to overturn the law. The unions/Democrats lose again.

And then last Tuesday, recall elections for six Republican state senators, three being needed to return the Senate to Democratic control and restore balance to the universe. Yet despite millions of union dollars, the Republicans hold the Senate. The unions/Democrats lose again.

The people spoke; the process worked. Yes, it was raucous and divisive, but change this fundamental should not be enacted quietly. This is not midnight basketball or school uniforms. This is the future of government-worker power and the solvency of the states. It deserves big, serious, animated public debate.

Precisely of the kind Washington (exhibit B) just witnessed over its debt problem. You know: The debt-ceiling debate universally denounced as dysfunctional, if not disgraceful, hostage taking, terrorism, gun-to-the-head blackmail.

Spare me the hysteria. What happened was that the 2010 electorate, as represented in Congress, forced Washington to finally confront the national debt. It was a triumph of democratic politics — a powerful shift in popular will finding concrete political expression.

But only partial expression. Debt hawks are upset that the final compromise doesn’t do much. But it shouldn’t do much. They won only one election. They were entrusted, as of yet, with only one-half of one branch of government.

But they did begin to turn the aircraft carrier around. The process did bequeath a congressional super-committee with extraordinary powers to reduce debt. And if that fails, the question — how much government, how much debt — will go to the nation in November 2012. Which is also how it should be.

The conventional complaint is that the process was ugly. Big deal. You want beauty? Go to a museum. Democratic politics was never meant to be an exercise in aesthetics.

Not just ugly, moan the critics, but oh so slow. True, again. It took months. And will take more. The super-committee doesn’t report until Thanksgiving. The next election is more than a year away. But the American system was designed to make a full turn of the carrier difficult and deliberate.

Moreover, without this long ugly process, the debt issue wouldn’t even be on the table. We’d still be whistling our way to Greece. Instead, a nation staring at insolvency is finally stirring itself to action, and not without spirited opposition. Great issues are being decided as constitutionally designed. The process is working.

Notice how the loudest complaints about “broken politics” come from those who lost the debate. It’s understandable for sore losers to rage against the machine. But there’s no need for the rest of us to parrot their petulance.

Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


cato_the_elder 6 years, 9 months ago

My favorite comment during the siege of the Wisconsin statehouse came from a modern-day hippie protestor who, while crawling through a statehouse window, turned back to a cameraman and said, "What makes you think it's your money, anyway?"

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 9 months ago

Sure, it's disappointing that only 2 of the 6 Republican senators in heavily Republican districts lost their elections.

But it's hardly a ringing endorsement of Republican class warfare. Quite the opposite.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 9 months ago

What's with your obsession over (mostly imagined) hippies?

jafs 6 years, 9 months ago

Our system is not working well.

S&P said as much in their reasons for downgrading our credit rating.

In order for our system to work well, we need a number of things:

Much greater voter turnouts in elections - at or near 100% of the eligible voters. Much greater voter education and critical thinking about issues. Much less money in Washington, and state/local politics. Much less rhetoric and ideology. Much more working together to solve problems.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 9 months ago

And all of those are anathema to Republican ideology and strategies.

FloridaSunshine 6 years, 9 months ago

I should have known better than to take that drink of water as I was reading, "Yeah, I got yer parrot right here..." and clicked onto the link. The "yer" in that last sentence should have been a warning...but, no, I go ahead and click the link...what a fountain of water from nose, mouth...not a pretty sight!! Just barely turned my head in time to miss my whole keyboard and monitor...got some of the papers on my desk... Gasping for breath...coughing and choking. Shame on you for endangering my life!! FOR SURE, that is THE funniest thing you've linked us to, tange...that I can remember, anyway...

usnsnp 6 years, 9 months ago

What I find wrong with the system is that the politicians do not represent the people in their districts. They sign pledges, they cowtow to talking heads, and they do what the party says to do in many cases. If a politician was representing the people in his district he would taken in to consideration what they all wanted, it should not make any difference if there are more of one party than another in the district, everyones outlook should be considered.

jayhawklawrence 6 years, 9 months ago

I will not vote for a politician who signs one these political party pledges.

The only pledge I approve of is the one that starts out,"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America..."

I don't want to vote for politicians anymore. I want to vote for honorable and brave people with character and wisdom to protect all the people of this country, even the poor.

beatrice 6 years, 9 months ago

"It’s understandable for sore losers to rage against the machine. But there’s no need for the rest of us to parrot their petulance."

Krauthammer wrote this without a hint of irony. Funny.

Scott Drummond 6 years, 9 months ago

Missing in Chuck's description of events in Wisconsin is any mention of the untold millions spent by conservatives to prevent more widespread recall of republicans. He would have us believe the hippies tried to lead an overthrow of the government and failed. In truth the repudiation of two sitting state senators is much bigger news than he'll admit. It was only two however thanks to the expense of a lot of right wing cash. It will take much more to maintain their desperate grip on power.

Scott Drummond 6 years, 9 months ago

Nothing of substance to add, as usual, I see.

Scott Drummond 6 years, 9 months ago

Funny, the bush tax cuts were supposed to create a bonanza of jobs.

Guess if you are not willing to move to China or India and work for slave wages, they haven't done much good, have they?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 9 months ago

The lack of jobs, despite 3 decades of tax cuts to the wealthy that were supposed to "create jobs," is what keeps people home, and not at work.

Unemployment benefits just mean these people can eat and make mortgage payments, which has the added benefit of keeping the economy from falling into and even deeper recession.

beaujackson 6 years, 9 months ago

Wait until Nov. 2012 to hear the (really) sore losers...

beaujackson 6 years, 9 months ago

Wait until Nov. 2012 to hear the (really) sore losers...

jayhawklawrence 6 years, 9 months ago

China will fix our political system by providing the butt kicking we have asked for.

Perhaps only then will we throw jerks like krauthammer out the window.

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