A system designed to be this way

 
The White House, 30 Dec Situation overcast... but the current political travails lie in the US constitution

Related Stories

Actually, it is working fine, just as it was intended.

The parties disagree so fundamentally that there is near paralysis. Just like it was meant to be. The separation of powers means that no one player holds all the cards.

Like the European Union, the US system doesn't just happen to be slow in finding solutions. Both were designed to move at the speed of the most sluggish, most reluctant members.

Most political systems evolve with the very natural disagreements at the heart of democracy in mind. Although we have a coalition right now, the British system tends to produce clear-cut, winner-takes-all results. If a party loses just by a fraction, it won't have any hands on the levers of power and its ideas will be ignored. Some think that grossly unfair.

In much of continental Europe, various forms of proportional voting produce far muddier results. So the parties have to agree on a programme before they form a coalition to govern. That is when they make their bargains and sacrifices. Most of the arguments happen before they take power, behind closed doors, with small parties holding disproportionately large bargaining chips.

The United States is different.

The president can't do a lot without the agreement of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Elections to those bodies every two years means they will often be held by a different party to the White House.

The whole thing was designed to keep states together when they were extremely jealous of their own powers, more like separate countries, on a hesitant journey towards becoming a fully fledged nation state. Moreover, it was built to keep on board the slave states - the way Congress operates was designed to make it very difficult for the rest to outlaw their inhumanity.

So the American system relies on human goodwill - that men and women can and will work together in their country's interests.

If they can't, nothing will be done, no progress will be made, and that's fine and dandy.

So when Americans despair of Washington, of Congress, of their politicians, their constitution, they should remember they are despairing of their constitution, which so many venerate as if it were Holy Writ.

It is meant to be this messy. Whether it is fit for purpose in a modern world (where slavery has been abolished) is another question.

Whether or not America tumbles over the cliff on Monday night one thing is clear - the country's political system is broken. Or is it?

 
Mark Mardell, North America editor Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

More on This Story

Related Stories

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 72.

    Mark: "It (the constitution) was designed to keep on bord the slave states."

    Innitially, every single one of the 13 colonies possessed slaves, thereby making it not the slightest bit contraversial for slavery to exist.

    It was only when, as a result of the development of industries that didn't require the practice, that northern states started to outlaw it, making it controversial.

  • Comment number 71.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 70.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 69.

    I'd also point out that the Constitution was written before there were official political parties in the US, and if Washington had his way, a party system never would have developed at all. Perhaps party politics throws a wrench into the deliberately cautious Constitutional design. Although, if it's a choice between the Constitution and the parties, I'd rather the parties clean up their act.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 68.

    The antagonistic comments reveal a lot. Mark simply mentioned some facts of history and has been accused of being anti-American. I think he is somewhat uncritical at times. I detect a bias against proportional representation. Just think if small parties (like the Greens) had a dissproportianate influence something might be done about the planetary emergencies!

  • Comment number 67.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 66.

     
    HAPPY NEW YEAR!


    Slàinte mhath!

  • Comment number 65.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 64.

    Funny, how the system wasn't slow or messy when the time came to pass the NDAA.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 63.

    Amazing how people forget that the Constitution can be AMENDED, it can be updated, changed. It is NOT holy writ, and should not be considered as such. It was written by fallible men in the 1700s who did not know the future, but knew that things can, and do, need to be changed over time when they no longer work. Things like slavery, and women not being allowed to vote.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 62.

    I find it odd that a country that is so advanced in many ways, still basis itself on a document written over 200 years ago and is largely irrelevant to the 21st century. America is a country that needs to grow up. Become less militant, stop telling the world how it should live and govern itself, when it can't look after itself.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 61.

    No government has eliminated minority grievances anywhere in the world. Slavery hasn't vanished completely even if it's thought illegal and people still suffer wrongs accidents injuries and if they still haven't found what they are looking for why criticise them? People who are not working for you right now are still in the business of living. It works if you use it rightly and against abuses.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 60.

    @59 I still don't have a job. Give me a job and I'll shut up. Until then, I'm going to continue complaining about the cause. I guess you have a job? Feel lucky, because many don't and the economy has a lot to do with that.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 59.

    @US-CITIZEN -- So here we are a year later and you're still blaming the gov't for your lack of a job? You then, are part of the problem.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 58.

    Mardell also tries to smear the important American principle of checks and balances as somehow affiliated with the disgrace of slavery-wrong. Once again he reveals his antagonistic bias against USA. Let me remind him that Britain enriched itself tremendously via slave trading until 1807, and didn't totally emancipate slaves in their empire till 1843. Don't throw stones-you came from a glass house.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 57.

    BienvenueEnLouisiana, I agree but the sad reality is many in Congress don't read the bills completely and pass political pork that "We the People" end up paying for. I wonder how much pork is included in this fiscal cliff they are rushing through. Will we end up funding some congressman's stupid pork deal when we are trying to cut the spending? Think what we could save if all of that stopped.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 56.

    Clueless, Mardell displays a complete misunderstanding of contemporary American politics, and reveals a disdainful and patronizing attitude. What is at stake here is a continuing power grab by Obama who is attempting to push the country down the road towards European socialism. The structure of our political system is intended to minimize "tyranny of the majority", not to create "paralysis".

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 55.

    @47, this is not a watershed moment, like you think it is. I agree that the rich should pay more in taxes, but keep in mind that they are also the small business owners who hire workers. If they have to decide on hiring a worker or paying the higher taxes the economy won't recover as fast as it might otherwise. We need to put America back to work as well as have the rich pay their share of taxes.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 54.

    I lost my job because Obama's bi-partisan super committee couldn't come to a decision back in 2011. The government shut down and stopped all nonessential government spending. Government workers lost their jobs because they couldn't come to a decision. In fact, some of the things they decided to let ride last year were included in this year's cliff. I wonder if they voted to give me my job back.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 53.

    Nice article. Although I was aware of the checks and balances aspects of the American political system I hadn't grasped the importance of keeping the slave states on-board in the early days of the Union. Oh, the inhumanity, as it were.
    Perhaps it's a case of Born this Way, A la Lady Gaga.

 

Page 1 of 4

 

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.