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US Government Paralysis and the Context of World History

A review of
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy
(Author: Francis Fukuyama)

It would be so great if everyone in the country read this book. It really ratchets-up one’s perspective on our government and its strengths and weaknesses.

Fukuyama describes a number of major historical transitions in political institutions that have taken place across diverse societies around the world:

  • from band-level to tribal-level societies
  • from tribal-level societies to states
    • where a state is defined as a hierarchical, centralized organization
      that holds a monopoly on legitimate force over a defined territory
  • from patrimonial to modern states
    • “patrimonial” includes kingdoms; the opposite is a
      meritocratic, bureaucratic government
  • the development of independent legal systems
    • China is noteworthy for being underdeveloped in this regard
  • the emergence of formal institutions of accountability
    • most notably, elections

He describes a kind of “backsliding” that the US has experienced towards patrimonialism, where blatant forms of corruption were mostly weeded out in the early twentieth century, but now the trading of influence for money has come back in a big way, through a form of “reciprocal altruism.” Ordinary Americans disdain it, which Trump exploited in his promises to “drain the swamp,” but no one sees a realistic way of curbing interest groups’ influence.

Of particular interest is his description of the United States government as a rather pathological “vetocracy.” He argues:

The long-standing distrust of the state that has always characterized American politics has led to an unbalanced form of government that undermines the prospects of necessary collective action.

The checks and balances of our Constitution arose in the context of our revolution against the British monarchy. Combined with massive population growth and with modern political polarization, the ability to reach consensus on anything is very hard. “Vetocracy” comes from Fukuyama’s observation that, compared to other developed countries, the US has an extraordinarily large number of “veto points” in the process of reaching a collective decision. He summarizes:

The American political system has decayed over time because its traditional system of checks and balances has deepened and become increasingly rigid. With sharp political polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests but gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people.

He remarks:

Proponents of democracy focus, for understandable reasons, on limiting the powers of tyrannical or predatory states. But they do not spend as much time thinking about how to govern effectively— they are, in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase, more interested in “controlling than in energizing government.”

So, where from here? In this book, Fukuyama explicitly avoids suggesting specific recommendations for policies or solutions to the problems he’s outlined, and intimates that there really isn’t any conceivable solution. In contrast, I of course have specific suggestions.

Short of a revolution, I believe the only way we can compensate for the structural paralysis in our government is to find informal ways to demand both compromise and coordinated action by legislators. We need to get off of the treadmill of gridlock, where the opposition obstructs (along party lines) all attempts at legislation by the party in power. That’s what is needed to break the cycle in which citizens mistrust their government, insidiously preventing it from being able to do the things that could restore their trust.

Today, the legislative representatives of the people aren’t doing their job, and that is why so much decision-making—by necessity—is left to the courts, to government agencies, to the president, and worst of all, to lobbyists. The political will to change this can only come from an electorate that understands this dynamic more clearly.

Again, I think this book is great for understanding our “vetocracy” problem. It’s quite a different perspective from the kinds of squabbles we constantly see dominating the news.

 

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