Former Vice President Joe Biden is winning Democratic primaries to a great extent on a message of uniting a politically fractured country and restoring normality back to the governmental system. Those aspirations are, of course, fundamentally positive in this time of legislative inertia and public dissatisfaction. The greatest challenge to the achievability of these aims, however, is a now prevailing mindset about the nature of America’s system of government held by significant, entrenched elements within both the Republican and Democratic parties. It is a mindset that will be difficult to fully overcome, at least in the short-term, should the presidency change hands.
Put simply, a vast swath of the electorate, and a great many serving in the government itself, have come to misguidedly view America’s system through a parliamentary lens: they see political parties as more than the primary actors within the governmental structure; they see the parties as the government. Thus, too many people of all political stripes have come to perceive America’s constitutional structure as a set of mechanisms to control and utilize for one party’s political ends, rather than a set of institutions for the parties to operate within, and conflict with, each other.
As a direct result of this mentality, singular party control of not only all three branches of government, but of all associated governmental institutions, is today mistakenly characterized by a great many people as the panacea for America’s political ills — it is seen as the only way to accomplish anything. What’s more, unitary party control of all government is, unto itself, seen as hierarchical, with the executive understood to be the indisputable head of the government’s institutions under such a condition — precisely because presidents are commonly acceded to as the leader of their party. Indeed, even in divided government, the executive is envisaged as a way to circumvent, or surmount, the Congress, and sometimes even the courts. In these times of prolonged political inertia, the sort of decisive energy and “dispatch” an executive can seemingly produce is alluring. Consequently, the presidency is improperly perceived today by multitudes as the primary locus of governmental action.
This distinction between what so many perceive to be the role of parties in government, and their proper role in governance, may seem academic to some, but it is actually critical. Political parties are not the government — not in America’s constitutional system; rather, they run candidates to function within it. Today’s party-centric mindset that America’s political parties are essentially the government itself is caustic to the American ideal, and — as long as it predominates — it will impede any political candidate’s efforts to reestablish a political balance. Indeed, the function of America’s governmental system, and the faith the public has in it, are in peril because of the pervasiveness of this misperception.
How have we come to so deeply misunderstand, and misuse, our own system?
It has spawned from years of party-orchestrated legislative obstinacy on issues of great consequence. The genesis of this approach is perhaps best traced to the 1994 “Republican Revolution” and Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s more confrontational, zero-sum vision of Congress. Though there were compromises on major issues that immediately followed, most prominent of which were the 1996 Welfare Reform bill and the 1997 balanced budget deal, the ascendance of a tribal, seemingly inviolable, sense of party identity took hold, and has since led to a gradual, but ever-intensifying, erosion of elected members’ collective, cross-party sense of institutional identity.
In much of American history, and certainly in much of the post-Depression 20th Century, congressional leaders saw themselves and their caucuses as operating within the institutional structure of the Congress. Achieving political progress meant engaging in political conflict and, often, compromise. Through the numerous examples of legislation they ultimately produced, it is clear they acknowledged the party opposite — despite moments of great acrimony during the legislative process — to be a legitimate, or at least inevitable, partner. The shift in culture away from this set of norms has been stark. And, though this parliamentary, party-centric mindset is more acute in the GOP, with the ascendance of the Tea Party and now Donald Trump, the Democratic Party is experiencing its own version, too.
Today, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell treats the Senate as his own personal fiefdom — and as a partisan tool. He unilaterally denies Supreme Court nominees hearings, calls himself the “grim reaper” in stultifying the legislative process itself by denying Senate consideration of hundreds of House-passed bills (many bipartisan), concentrates almost exclusively on confirming judges (now that the filibuster has been eliminated at all levels by his predecessor Harry Reid and himself), and unabashedly declaimed that he was working in lockstep with the Trump Administration to undermine the impeachment trial. And, all the while, a quiescent Senate Republican caucus has played along faithfully. But, it is also clear he sees the institution of the Senate as an adjunct to the wishes of his party leader, the president, whom he consults regularly and follows almost methodically. McConnell’s counterparts in the House, led most recently by Paul Ryan, and now by Kevin McCarthy, have followed to a great extent the same pattern as McConnell, to the point of obsequiousness toward their own putative leader in Congress, the president.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’ ascendance has been itself a powerful shock to many in the party. Though usually ideologically opposed to many of Donald Trump’s pronouncements, Sanders’ promises reflect the same kind of strategic thinking now dominant in the GOP: initiatives must be forced through by the party; institutional control and executive-led action are the presumed paths forward. Many new members follow and propagate this outlook: vanquishing the opposition is the only way — and the right way — to get results. And, just like Republicans, many couch these pronouncements in an almost Manichaean outlook. Nothing good can come from the political opposition.
The development, spread, intensification, persistence, and — in a twisted way — the perceived efficacy, of this approach to governing has over time modified public expectations of America’s system of government, and of the parties’ roles within that system. It has also proven to be a profound determinant of what kinds of people run for political office in many districts and regions. Over the last three decades, this approach has transmogrified the institution of Congress from America’s constitutional forum for organized conflict and compromise into the nation’s principal source of political discord. The resultant dearth of political progress foments greater and greater levels of public frustration, and that frustration has become the focal point for multitudes of candidates’ election and reelection strategies up and down the ballot. Many candidates in many districts and regions, run on what was not accomplished, not just because they can tout little that was, but because constituents in many districts and regions have come to treat the very concept of bipartisan compromise with opprobrium. And, these trends are intensified by the practice of gerrymandering, which multiplies the number of “safe” districts for the most stalwart of candidates to run for and win political office.
Many in the electorate today tend to conflate, if not confuse, long unresolved but perpetually salient issues for the most fundamental of American principles. A great many have come to expect the parties not to compromise. In fact, they often demand it. Prolonged legislative obstinacy has caused America’s political parties to become followers of their most ardent constituencies, rather than political organizations that provide leadership and offer visions to those constituencies.
Political parties, as self-interested super-factions with unique access to governmental institutions, naturally seek to concentrate power to achieve their goals in the purest form possible, despite any opposition. That impulse has long been tempered by the Framers’ system. Today’s predominant mindset, therefore, is anathema to the American system, which is predicated upon the notion that government is a set of adversarial institutions within which political conflict is intended to playout. It is wholly unlike a parliamentary system, where the majority party’s, or coalition’s, leadership is the government. When buy-in to the purposes of the system is diminished among institutional actors in favor of party loyalty, the efficacy of America’s institutional structure as a bulwark against party self-aggrandizement concomitantly diminishes.
“Presidentialist” scholars have long seen the executive as inherently powerful due, if nothing else, to the lack of specificity in Article II’s description of “executive power.” Now, in the wake of long-term congressional inertia on the most consequential of societal challenges, more and more people of all stripes have come to see the executive as the best, if not the only, hope for political action or progress when combined with party control of the legislative branch. While elected officials and the public continue to venerate the Constitution and the system it produces, they implicitly, and often explicitly, embrace the concept of centralized power and action within and from the executive to achieve political ends on behalf of a controlling party.
The growing attractiveness of the presidency as the locus for political action is, in fact, a key reason for the election of a “doer” like Donald Trump, who has been advancing this concept of centralized executive power far beyond many people’s comfort. To that end, he is today mistakenly seen by multitudes as the source of America’s political ills. But, that is backwards. Instead, his election and approach to the office are better defined as products of those ills. The degradation of American politics is a much deeper problem than simply one man’s idiosyncrasies, as troublesome and undesirable (to say the least) as his are to so many.
If Biden is elected, it will be difficult to reverse the trends that have led to this mindset, for the public as well as the parties have grown accustomed to it. Entrenched interests within the GOP and the Democratic Party, will treat movements toward institutional, rather than strictly party-based, approaches to governing as threats, and as nonstarters. Still, the journey back to an understanding of the true nature of America’s government must start somewhere, and with someone. And, it is worth pursuing. One can only hope that, once in power, Biden himself does not become enamored with the parliamentary mindset himself (especially if the Democrats achieve unitary control).
Nonetheless, the intent of the Framer’s design is clear: the legislature was never constructed to be dominated by a single party – indeed, the Framers didn’t anticipate parties would form. Rather it was meant to be a forum for political interaction among factions. The Framers assumed that legislators would share a singular goal: to produce political progress on issues of great consequence. It is that founding mindset the nation, and its parties, are missing.
Dennis R. Bullock was a candidate for the California State Assembly 43rdDistrict seat in 2016. He publishes frequently on national politics and teaches in Burbank, CA.