Is the American Political System Broken?

The three branches of government can be mutually counter-productive.
  • Transcript


Kwame Anthony Appiah: I think the United States labors under a disability which does not afflict all the industrial democracies. Which is that our founding fathers – and mothers for that matter – were so worried about tyranny that they designed a system of government which made it very hard to do big things.

They designed a system of government which was designed to produce a legislature that restrained the executive; and executive that fought with the legislature; and the judiciary that placed severe limitation in certain directions on what either of the other two could do. And it was likely to be disliked much of the time by the legislature, and arguably also by the executive.

I said that I think leadership is important. We have a system in which leadership is extremely difficult because the incentives for those in opposition – and I include the opposition between the branches as a form of opposition, even if they are in the same party – the incentives for the opposition are always to make leadership difficult.

So in the United Kingdom, which makes it too easy, arguably, for the government to push things in a certain direction because the Prime Minister, by definition, is the person who has a majority in the legislature; and Parliament is sovereign so that it can override the judiciary in many contexts.

But in England it has been possible, for example, under Gordon Brown, who is now Prime Minister, they did actually push in ways that I don’t think were particularly driven by public opinion for more action on the global fairness question.

Now it has to be said, to do him justice, that George [W.] Bush has also devoted a fair amount of his time to pushing the Congress to do more, for example, about AIDS in Africa, spend more money there than was spent, for example, under the [Bill] Clinton Administration.

And the trouble is to get money out of the Congress, whose members have to go home and explain why they are not subsidizing the corn in Iowa this year so much is difficult.

And it’s especially difficult to get money out of them; even from well-intentioned people who understand the problem for people in other places, who don’t vote, and who don’t have much voice in the world.

So I’m just rambling on about what I take to be the difficulties that face us in our system. And one of the things that I think has depressed me most about our political system in the last decade or so has been the incredible partisanship. There’s nothing wrong with people fighting about issues, and having different views about them, and arguing vigorously for their point of view. But opposing a point of view simply because it’s their point of view of the other party, right? That’s bad.

But again, our political system is in some ways designed to reward that, because by defining yourself as “not them,” you draw on political identities. And political identities allow you to win elections and so on.

So I think there are very difficult challenges facing the United States, in particular, in my view, because of the divided system of government that we have; because of the separate branches and their intrinsic conflicts with one another.

I would say there are some potential institutional solutions that are consistent with not amending the Constitution. I think for example; this is an idea that Jim Leach of Iowa, who is actually a former Republican congressman, has pushed which I think is every sensible idea.

Part of the partisanship flows from the fact that electoral districts in the United States are increasingly designed to be majority one party or another. This means that the way you win election is by winning the party, and the way you win the party, is going to be by persuading the most active people in the party, who are going to be the most extreme people in the party. Because they are the ones who are the most excited, as it were, by the political situation. The result is that if you design a majority system where the districts are designed to be majority one party or the other, you will get the most extreme people of both parties elected, and they will be the most partisan people, and you will have partisan legislature.

It’s why the Congress is more partisan than the Senate, because in the Senate you can’t gerrymander because the districts are defined by the states. And it’s why Iowa is less partisan than other states, because in Iowa congressional districting, because of the way the Iowa constitution does it, doesn’t allow you to gerrymander the constituencies, which is why an Iowa congressman has made this proposal.

Now it’s very hard to figure out how to do this in general, and it’s even hard to figure out; I’m not a lawyer, but it might be difficult to do by congressional action because our constitution envisages the states managing their own electoral processes. But I think urging on everybody that it’s tremendously important to have political districts in which there’s a real chance of shifting parties, because that pushes people towards consensus. It pushes people towards the middle. And we desperately need to be able to create consensus and to be in the middle, I think, in order to make progress of any of these questions.

Now it’s a long answer to it, but it has to be a long answer because it’s a complicated question – how you reshape the institutions in order to make the good things that we need to happen.

But I think that it’s an instance of the general problem. You take human nature, and unless you design the institutions very carefully, people will be incentivized to do things which everybody, if they stand back from, can see are not helpful.

It’s remarkable to see very smart, thoughtful, committed public servants behaving like spoiled children in the legislature, whether it’s in the Congress, the House of Representatives or in the Senate. Because that’s sort of what the structure of incentives is.

And we can’t individually do much about this. We can’t even do much about it collectively unless we reshape the institutions to reward the people who are going to behave differently.

Right now a congressman from an agricultural state who says, “Look. It’s more important right now for us to have a just system of world trade in agriculture than it is to subsidize the people in my district” is going to lose the next election. And we have to figure out ways around that problem.

And I don’t have a general answer; but on the particular question of the kind of polarizing partisanships, I do think there are institutional changes that we could make. They’re perfectly constitutional to make. They’re perfectly legal to make them in the states, which would diminish the extent to which that’s true.

Recorded on: July 31 2007