clock menu more-arrow no yes

America's political system isn't going to collapse. It's going to muddle through.

I agree with everything in Matthew Yglesias's fantastic piece on the coming collapse of American democracy except for the thesis.

Let's start with where we agree: Yglesias is right about the fault line slicing through America's system of government. There is no constitutional mechanism for solving disputes between the executive and the legislature. That wasn't such a problem when the parties weren't particularly polarized, but it's a huge and growing problem in an age when the parties loathe each other.

The American public hates Congress. But they've shown little interest in fundamentally changing it.

This isn't a critique of the political system our Founders envisioned. It's an admission that we are not in the political system our Founders envisioned. The Constitution was designed for a political system without organized parties, where senators were elected by state legislatures and where no one had ever heard of a filibuster. The system we have today is not the system the Founders believed they were building.

But here's where I think Yglesias wrong: America's political system isn't going to collapse. It's going to muddle through. The changes needed to make it manageable will be less sweeping than the problems might imply, in part because the quality of governance Americans will accept is lower than we might like to believe.

When you can't solve a problem, muddle through it

Policy wonks, in general, tend to underestimate the power (and, to some degree, the appeal) of muddling through problems. We see a problem and assume that there will have to be, eventually, a solution. But we routinely underestimate the public's capacity to endure dysfunction and its unwillingness to countenance disruptive change.

True, the American public hates Congress. But they've shown little interest in fundamentally changing it. Instead, they've tuned it out. Turnout in the 2014 midterm elections was the lowest in 70 years. Loathing Congress didn't push people to upend the system. It persuaded them to ignore it. Good-government types would like to believe that as American government becomes more dysfunctional, pressure will build for reform. The reality is probably the opposite: the worse government gets, the more disaffected voters will become. They'll put their time and attention elsewhere.

Of course, Yglesias isn't arguing that the American people will rise up and reform American government. He's arguing that an irresolvable crisis will crack it in half. But that's where I think he errs. Few crises are truly irresolvable, particularly if you're willing to wait them out. A president and a Congress at odds over a Supreme Court nomination can simply run out the clock. Washington will consider it a crisis to have an eight-person Supreme Court for months or even years, but the country is unlikely to fall apart.

Meanwhile, a crisis that actually harms Americans is likely to prove quickly resolved: I worry that Congress really will breach the debt ceiling over the next decade, but I don't think they'll breach it for long. The markets will howl, the offending party will see its poll numbers drop below that of skin lesions, and the crisis will be resolved — though the country's borrowing costs might be permanently raised.

America's political system won't collapse. But it will change.

At the same time, persistent problems in governance will eventually lead to some significant, albeit far from transformational, changes. There are three in particular I expect to see in the coming decades.

First, the filibuster will be declawed. Senate Democrats began the work in 2013, using a simple majority vote to protect most non-Supreme Court nominations from filibusters. That left the filibuster in an unstable equilibrium: it demands a supermajority to pass almost anything, but it exists at the pleasure of a simple majority.

Eventually, it will collapse. Indeed, you can see key elites in both parties laying the groundwork. When Vox asked President Obama what would need to happen for American government to withstand the continued rise in polarization, he immediately suggested limiting the filibuster. Only a few weeks later, Charles Krauthammer, arguably the most influential op-ed columnist among Republicans, called for abolishing the filibuster altogether. Its days are numbered.

This is a little-noticed reality of gridlock: as Congress becomes weaker, the president becomes stronger

Second, as divided Congresses prove less able to govern, more and more domestic power will be claimed by the president. You can see this happening in Obama's presidency: Congress is too gridlocked to pass immigration reform or a climate bill or a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. But it's also too gridlocked to stop Obama from pushing the boundaries of his executive authority and lifting the threat of deportation from millions of unauthorized immigrants, or using the Environmental Protection Agency to pass aggressive climate rules, or giving states waivers from No Child Left Behind as long as they do what the Obama administration asks.

This is a little-noticed reality of gridlock: as Congress becomes weaker, the president becomes stronger. And that's because gridlock doesn't just stop Congress from doing anything — it also stops them from blocking the president from doing things.

Finally, we will begin to failure-proof the American political system against the problems of divided government. A breach of the debt ceiling — or even an overly close call — might quickly be followed by the permanent elimination of the debt ceiling (something we should have done a long time ago anyway). That would limit the damage a dysfunctional Congress could do to the country.

Turnout in the 2014 midterm elections was the lowest in 70 years. (Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

The future of American politics is disappointment, not catastrophe

The eventual result is likely to be a political system where periods of divided government are characterized by paralysis and brinksmanship, but the president wields more power, and there is more protection against disaster. When governing majorities do exist, they will govern more aggressively — much as the Democrats did in 2009 and 2010.

This will not solve the fundamental problems in America's political system, but it will keep the system from being overwhelmed by them. As such, the root dysfunction — that America's political system is not built for, and does not work amidst, highly polarized parties — will not lead to the collapse of American democracy so much as a slow erosion of America's advantages. Much that needs to get done simply won't get done. What does get done won't be done well.

It is hard to apportion blame for economic growth that should have happened but didn't

Over time, the public will grow angry with this situation, but they won't know exactly who to be angry at, nor how to fix it. It is hard to apportion blame for economic growth that should have happened but didn't; for a tax code that should have been simplified but wasn't; for successful companies that could have been started here but weren't; for government services that should be better but aren't. America will muddle through — the cost of our political system's problems won't be a spectacular collapse so much as they will be the slow divergence between what our living standards could be and what they are.

But America won't be the only country muddling through. Europe is hampered by the governance problems in the Eurozone, which dwarf the dysfunction of the United States (and where muddling through has been elevated into a grotesque art form). And while it is fashionable to worry about the rise of China, their political system is corrupt and rigid, and far more rife with possibilities for catastrophic failure than ours. It's not just the United States where political problems persist without real solutions.


Lead image: Charles Ommanney / Getty Images
Health Care

Pfizer’s clinical data puts the US one step closer to a Covid-19 vaccine for younger kids

Coronavirus

Who should get a Covid-19 booster shot right now?

Health Care

The Supreme Court’s very unusual new abortion orders, explained

View all stories in Politics & Policy

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.