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What Obama gets wrong about political dysfunction

Chip Somodevilla

Speaking to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Barack Obama offered a sentiment that most Americans will agree with: "our politics are dysfunctional." And he offered a diagnosis of why that is: "societies don't work if political factions take maximalist positions."

Of course, Obama has a specific faction in mind — the Republicans.

But while it's certainly true that the GOP has started behaving in a dysfunctional way, the underlying issue isn't quite what Obama thinks. It's not that societies can't function with parties taking the kind of strong stands associated with today's Republicans. It's that our society, and in particular our "Madisonian" system of majoritarian elections paired with countermajoritarian governance can't function this way.

The basic problem was diagnosed decades ago by the late political scientist Juan Linz in his research on the frequency of military coups in Latin American countries with US-style presidential republics:

But what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. Theme is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power.

In the essay, Linz characterizes the United States as the exception that proves the rule. He cites "the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties" in contrast to the "responsible, ideologically disciplined" ones found in the rest of the world as the likely source of the resilience of our political system. Except by 1990, the days of ideologically diffuse parties were already just about numbered. Almost 25 years later, it's clear that they're not coming back any time soon.

The good news is that there's no reason to believe that Linz's fear of a violent disruption of the constitutional order is imminent.

The bad news is that the national malady is more profound than Obama believes. A more compromising approach from the GOP might be nice. But as Madison himself wrote, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." The purpose of political institutions is to generate reasonable outcomes, despite the foibles of political faction. The institutions we have are institutions that have repeatedly failed to do that in places where they've been tried — institutions that American officials with good reason did not suggest countries like Germany and Japan emulate in the wake of the World War II. Institutions that we nonetheless seem to be stuck with.