Last time, I illustrated how the un-democracy of the US Senate hogties the Pacific Northwest. It radically underrepresents the most-populous, diverse, and innovative parts of the country, making it exceedingly difficult for the nation to adapt to the demands of a radically new global era by, for example, adopting sweeping new approaches to energy and climate policy. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the negatives emanating from the design of the Senate.
Senate-induced gridlock in Washington, DC, erodes the public’s confidence in their ability to act collectively through institutions of democratic self-rule and to rise to the great challenges of the day. It gives government a bad name. As Peter Beinart argues in the March 1 edition of Time, this side-effect has pushed the United States into a vicious circle of governance failure: “From health care to energy to the deficit, addressing the U.S.’s big challenges requires vigorous government action. When government doesn’t take that action, it loses people’s faith. And without public faith, government action is harder still.” Conversely, “When government acts to solve problems, even if the solutions aren’t perfect, it breaks the vicious circle of political failure and mistrust.”
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In fact, Beinart argues, when—as at present—the minority party is also the anti-government party, it’s actually in that party’s electoral interest to obstruct the passage of the majority party’s legislative agenda, even if the minority party does not disagree with it. By their behavior, they reinforce the notion that Washington, DC, is an epic failure, which voters tend to blame on the majority party, thus pushing elections toward the minority party.
One result of this dynamic is that Congress can change hands repeatedly, with even large majorities unable to pass their programs, because the rules so favor Senate minorities in general and small-state voters in particular. The public, unaware of the flawed design of US governance, personalizes blame on elected officials themselves, and on lobbyists and campaign money (both worthy of considerable blame!), and has its cynicism confirmed. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mistrust of government has become deep and widespread in the United States, as the Demos Institute has documented extensively. And in many US states (though not necessarily in the Northwest), public trust in governing institutions is at or near record lows, a victim of a wretched economy and state and federal capitals that seem unable to rouse themselves to action.
The sad fact is, they can’t rouse themselves to action in Washington, DC, because the governing system was designed to resist action. That’s what “checks and balances” means: stop!
Thus, the flaws of the Senate’s design corrode public trust in government in general. Without public belief in our ability to rise to the daunting challenges we face, to act collectively through our democracy, the quality of self-governance goes into a vicious circle of cynicism, disaffection, and failure.
Next time, I’ll describe how the Canadian part of the Northwest ended up with a superior system.