Many Americans worry that their political system cannot handle big problems such as immigration reform and the national debt. Young people are unsure about the democratic institutions they will inherit. Some pundits blame the Constitution and call for deep changes in the structure of government.
We’ve been here before – and have overcome the challenge.
During the early 1930s, the Great Depression was at its meanest. Economic desperation combined with Prohibition-era crime to produce murder rates that would not be seen again until the 1970s. Millions lost hope because Washington had seemingly lost its way.
Serious and influential people wondered whether the United States should give up on democracy altogether. Some held up foreign despots as role models. “Say, Mussolini could run this country with his eyes shut,” wrote humorist Will Rogers in February 1933. “In fact, that’s the way our Congress has been running it.” Meanwhile, the movie “Gabriel Over the White House” scored big at the box office with its favorable depiction of a fictional president assuming dictatorial power.
A few weeks after the movie’s premiere, however, Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. His confident demeanor immediately started to reassure Americans. Together with strong majorities in Congress, he launched policies – Social Security, for instance – that revived optimism about the country’s direction, even though the Depression would linger for years.
In the late 1970s, the nation again seemed to be careening out of control. The decade’s woes – including stagflation and gas lines – were not as horrible as the Depression, but they were bad enough to spawn anxiety that the country’s governing system was not up to the job. Once again, Washington heard talk about radical surgery on institutions. There was no support for dictatorship this time; instead, leading writers such as Lloyd Cutler and Lester Thurow argued that America should move toward a parliamentary system, in which the party that wins the legislative branch also takes the executive branch – in other words, no divided government.
Then came the 1980 election and the Reagan administration. The Gipper hardly put an end to America’s problems, but as with FDR, his successes – and eternal optimism – quieted the calls for scrapping the Founders’ system. Forty-eight years after FDR launched Social Security, Reagan reached a legislative agreement to keep it alive for decades to come.
A few years ago, international crises and economic disaster reignited fears about American democracy. For a moment, it seemed as if President Obama might follow in the Roosevelt-Reagan tradition by restoring faith in the system. He and a Democratic Congress won enactment of a massive economic stimulus and far reaching health-care law.
But millions saw these actions as blunders, not triumphs. In 2010, they rebuked the president by electing a Republican majority in the House. The federal government was now divided and polarized. Despite deepening public frustration, the 2012 election kept the same parties in charge of the same institutions. Whereas FDR and Reagan scored reelection landslides far greater than their first victories, Mr. Obama made history by winning a second term while losing vote share.
Now the days of hope and change are well over, underscored by a series of controversies and accusations – the IRS, Benghazi, wiretapping – swirling around the president. Legislative agreements on big issues are scarce. Some blame gerrymandered voting districts in the House, while some blame the filibuster in the Senate. Others go further: One prominent law professor wrote a provocative New York Times commentary titled “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”
Procedural reforms may well deserve consideration, but Americans are fooling themselves if they think they can contain political gridlock with parchment barriers. Government is divided because “we the people” are divided on key issues.
Any measure that would make headway against the deficit – such as cuts in entitlement programs or broad-based tax increases – will light up grass-roots opposition. Americans remain conflicted on health care because any policy under the sun is going to mean sobering tradeoffs of cost, access, and quality.
Even when there is consensus on a big issue, it may not run deep. The great majority of Americans support background checks for all gun sales. But according to Gallup polls, they rank gun control 11th out of 12 national priorities.
When public opinion is divided or irresolute, it’s no surprise that democratic government may seem indecisive.
The Constitution is neither a suicide pact nor a guarantee of despair. On certain issues, creative lawmakers can still cobble together coalitions of diverse interests. Such a process may be under way with immigration reform. In this case, the search for common ground has gotten a boost from circumstances beyond the control of American politicians. As Hispanic Americans continue to gain political clout and as economic and demographic trends in Mexico have apparently helped to halt mass migration, the strain on US immigration policy has been eased.
On broader concerns, political change will come when voters move decisively in one direction or the other. It happened in 1932 and 1980, and it could happen again – provided candidates provide real choices and winners follow through on what they say.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of “After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics.”