System Failure: US Democracy Is Nearing its Limits

A Commentary By and

Photo Gallery: US Congress Votes to End Shutdown Photos
AP

The United States has temporarily avoided federal default. As the Republicans lick their wounds, the Democrats are triumphant. But no one should be happy, because the debacle has exposed just how broken the American political system truly is.

The president kept things short, speaking for only three minutes on Wednesday night to praise the debt compromise reached by Congress. After he finished, a reporter called after him: "Mr. President, will this happen again in a couple of months?" Barack Obama, who was on his way out the door, turned and answered sharply, "No."

But such optimism has proven to be unrealistic in the past. With his re-election in 2012, Obama thought he could break the Republican "fever." Instead, the conservatives paralyzed the government and risked a federal default just so they could stop Obama's signature project: health care reform. And this despite the fact that "Obamacare" had been approved by a majority of both houses of Congress, was upheld by the US Supreme Court, and was endorsed by the American people in the voting booths.

No, the democratic process cannot reduce this "fever," and probably won't during the next fight, either. On the contrary, the political crisis has turned out to be a systemic crisis.

America's 237-year-old democracy is approaching its limits. Its political architecture was not designed for long-lasting blockades and extortion, the likes of which have been enthusiastically practiced by Tea Party supporters for almost the last four years. The US's founding fathers proposed a system of checks and balances, not checks and boycotts.

In hardly any other western democracy are the minority's parliamentary rights as strongly pronounced as they are in the US, where a single senator can delay legislation, deny realities, and leverage the system.

Non-Representative Democracy

In Germany, the government is built from a majority in parliament. In America, the president and his allies in Congress have to organize majorities for each new law. But for a long time Obama has hardly been able to find any -- not for immigration reform, or new gun control laws, or even for the budget, as the world's largest economy has been making do with emergency spending measures since 2009.

Scarcely 50 right-wing populists, led by Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz, have been pushing their once proud Republican party into a kamikaze course. Why are the other Republicans letting them do this? They are afraid of radical challengers within their own party in their local districts.

Meanwhile, the Democrats hardly pose a threat, because over the past several years the borders of the congressional districts have been manipulated in such a way that they almost always clearly go Republican or Democratic. As a result, America loses the representative nature of its representative democracy. In the congressional elections in 2012, Democrats won 1.17 million more votes than Republicans, but Republicans got 33 more seats in the House of Representatives.

Changes in majority rarely exist anymore. Not even 10 percent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives are considered competitive. As a result, those who would be willing to compromise in Washington are already punished during the primary seasons back home, which was how the last moderates were pushed out of Congress.

Name Calling in Congress

During the recent debt ceiling fight, Tea Party hotheads called their colleagues who were willing to talk with Democrats the "surrender caucus." Anybody who would vote for a compromise "would virtually guarantee a primary challenger," Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp threatened on Tuesday.

The once civil political discourse in Washington has long since turned into a fight of bitter rivals trying to inflict the worst possible wounds. One is no longer respected as a worthy opponent, but attacked like an enemy. This behavior is in turn egged on by talk radio personalities, for whom compromise is a sign of weakness and lies are just another form of reality.

Adding to this is the almost unlimited flow of campaign contributions, which finance the increasingly brutal mudslinging during congressional elections every two years. Behind those donations are often radical groups or interested billionaires, such as the brothers David and Charles Koch, who have financed the Tea Party and are thought to have helped plan and direct the most recent crisis.

At the same time, the US is undergoing huge demographic shifts, which were recently evident in Obama's re-election. The old "white majority" is slowly shrinking into a minority. One of the consequences has been the rise of the Tea Party, which is loudly pushing back against change, Obama and the government itself.

Tea Party protagonists such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin beguile their followers with folksy language they can understand and proudly hold up ignorance and stupidity as badges of honor in their battle against the "elite" and their intellect.

The results were evident during this most recent debt ceiling crisis. A federal default by the US would not be so bad, romanticized Florida Republican Ted Yoho, demonstrating a happy ignorance of economic issues. "I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets," he said.

This time around the US has just barely avoided testing out such crazy theories. But as the system limps along, the next crisis already has a deadline: Jan. 15, 2014, when the bill agreed to on Wednesday expires.

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1. optional
gerhard38 10/17/2013
The spectacle in the house and senate has paused for now, but make no mistake it will reignite in less than three months from now. The american parliamentary system is broken because the players - government, senators and congressmen - fight allot wars against each other and demonstrate their reckless irresponsibility and immaturity on an ongoing basis to their electorate and the world. Nobody knows what the next cliffhanger in January will bring. Washington's silly games cripple the planning of the leaders in industry thereby prolonging the recovery which has been unnecessarily anemic. It is time that the electorate stands up and let the political leadership know that they should either shape up and cooperate in a meaningful way or get out of the way. America deserves better than what these egomaniacal morons in Washington are delivering.
2. optional
peskyvera 10/17/2013
The two-party system just doesn't work, it doesn't offer real choice. The political system is corrupt. Senators and Congressmen should have their terms in office limited. And the news media, if it still had any shred of decency left, need to report facts and not fiction.
3. US Constitution
hughfitz99 10/17/2013
Obviously, you have no idea why the founding fathers wrote the constitution the way it is. Obama has violated many articles of the US Constitution. He is too execute the laws Congress passes and nothing more. HE IS THE ONE WHO HELD THE AMERICAN PEOPLE HOSTAGE USING EXTORTION. By going public and saying he will not sign into law anything but what he wanted is extortion and grounds for impeachment. God help America.
4. Seriously?
dtechba 10/17/2013
Broken? This is by no means the worst that has ever happened politically in the USA. The system is by no means broken, just in a bad phase. Only someone with a severe lack of knowledge in US political history would consider this "broken".
5. optional
danm 10/17/2013
Respectfully, this is the worst written article I ever read on Der Spiegel. It was lazy in that it merely regurgitated every hard left talking point making the rounds today. It was heavy handed with it’s partisan name calling “Right-Wing Populists” and “Tea Party Hotheads”. It utterly misrepresented the fact that Obama was passed along the most partisan lines of any landmark legislation ever created in the USA and then acts surprised that Republicans haven’t embraced it. The authors acted like a favorable Supreme Court ruling was proof of legitimacy. Funny how they did not use the same reasoning to say gun owner rights and congressional redistricting were also legitimate since they also received supreme court support. Maybe you need both a favorable supreme court ruling and the approval of the leftist media to be legitimate. Hmmm. I will have to think about that one. Seriously, you guys embarrassed yourself on this one. Unless you want to be a hard left echo chamber like Mother Jones or the Huffington post, you might want to let a little news seep through the cracks of your heavy handed editorial commentary. Lol
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