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Blame Republicans, Not Madison, for Gridlock

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Is partisan disagreement good or bad? Does the U.S. do a good job of dealing with it? Why do the parties disagree?

Ezra Klein has one set of answers, delivered as an “if Obama was honest” version of a State of the Union speech. His answer: "the state of the political system that governs the country is weak.” The U.S. political system prevents well-meaning people from reaching productive arrangements. "Why can't you guys just agree?" he concludes, is “the right question.” Politicians trapped in this system “don't cooperate because the rules don't let them cooperate.”

The problem, as he sees it, is that since electoral politics is a zero-sum game (if one party wins, the other party must lose), even well-meaning Republicans have to disagree with whatever the Democratic president proposes, because “the rules of the game make it career suicide” for the out party to support presidential proposals. This is true, despite a political system "built to require our agreement.” All of which means:

Over time, the failures of our political system will eat at the very foundations of our country's strength: they will weaken our economy, divide our people, and squander our opportunities. They may well lead to an unnecessary and devastating crisis, like a debt-ceiling fight that is not resolved in time and triggers a global financial crisis that leaves the American economy forever diminished.

I think this diagnosis is wrong, pretty much across the board.

“Why can’t you guys just agree?” isn’t a good question at all. Disagreement is inherent in democracy because citizens differ in both interests and opinions, as James Madison explained in Federalist 10. Political parties don’t create what Madison called “faction.” Instead, they channel it, organize it and determine which of the infinite fault lines will become our real political battles. Politicians disagree because they represent constituents who disagree, not because the political system invents conflict.

One might argue that there’s a right way to settle those battles – for example, by allowing the majority to win. But no political system does that. Yes, some make it a lot easier for the majority party to enact its policy preferences (see, for example, this fan letter to New Zealand’s parliamentary system by Ezra’s Vox colleague Dylan Matthews).

Yet there’s no reason to believe that a winning party really represents popular majorities even on the issues on which it campaigned most vigorously, let alone on those peripheral to the election. Instead, we know that election results follow big-picture events, especially on the economy. The voice of the people should rarely be interpreted to mean much more than either “keep up the good work” or “throw the bums out!” 

So we can pretend to think that Americans in 2008 all wanted health-care reform and vigorous action on climate change and marriage equality and stronger trade unions and gun control and whatever else the Democratic Party favored, and then believe the voters changed their minds in 2010, then reversed themselves again in 2012 and once more in 2014. Or we can acknowledge (for example) that people turned against Republicans because of an unpopular war and a terrible economy in 2008. We can then endorse a system that makes it difficult for any party to exploit electoral victories, given that elections are at least as much about timing as they are about voters' preferences on the issues. 

Yes, a system that requires compromise means gridlock is possible. But Ezra overstates the electoral incentive for pure opposition to the president.

On most issues, there simply isn’t much of a popular incentive either way. It’s true that if Republicans simply agreed with whatever Barack Obama said, he might be more popular, but this isn't in the cards no matter what (because, again, differences of opinion and interest are inherent in democracy). Nor would it mean rainbows all around if, instead, Republicans criticized him harshly, proposed their own plans and eventually reached a deal. After all, George H.W. Bush wasn't saved by the budget deals he struck with Democrats; nor was George W. Bush helped much by the bipartisan support for the Iraq war once things went bad.

The one potentially dangerous exception is on the economy, where the results of certain policies (and not just the impression people get from the process) really matter for future elections. It’s never going to be clear to the out party, however, when it’s safe to deliberately undermine the economy. After all, Republicans were damaged in 1995-1996 when they shut down the government.

The real problem preventing compromise isn’t inherent in the political system. It's something particularly wrong with the Republican Party, which has become increasingly hostile to the very notion of compromise (see the polling noted by Greg Sargent this morning that a Republican plurality believes Republicans in Congress have been too eager to compromise with Barack Obama).

A broken Republican Party is dangerous as an opposition party in a Madisonian system, which requires compromise. But it might be more dangerous in a parliamentary system, which lets winners enact their agenda with little resistance. So unless something about the U.S. system is to blame for that Republican dysfunction – and I don’t think there is – then institutional reform along the lines Ezra might like won’t help and might be harmful.

Sure, there are plenty of examples of bad government in the U.S., just as there are in all large democracies. And the system of separated institutions sharing powers (with a robust federalism) may look ugly -- all that visible sausage-making. But that doesn't mean it doesn't work reasonably well -- if given a chance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at