A system designed to be this way

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

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?

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