voice for democracy

American Democracy Is Ugly, and That's OK – Bloomberg

For all its faults, the U.S. political system works better than many people think.
It’s fine.
Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
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I get excellent reader mail:
Do I ever do that? Sure, and the debt-limit debate is tops on the list. Everyone appears to be acting stupidly, with the goal at this point apparently being to score some partisan points that no one will remember or care about by next November, let alone 2024.

But overall? For legislation such as the two major bills — infrastructure and “Build Back Better” — that Democrats are trying to enact? Absolutely. I’m all for the messiness of legislating and enacting public policy. Most of the time, it reflects the real underlying messiness of the nation — and the fact that policy itself is an inexact science at best.

The U.S. is, after all, organized to produce this sort of … well, what looks like ugliness. It starts during campaigns, where political parties are loosely organized and largely non-hierarchical, which means that practically anyone can show up and contest a nomination. Of course, it’s a large nation, and those already influential within the party tend to stay that way. But they can’t lock out newcomers, with new ideas and new priorities, who perhaps represent interests that were previously ignored by the major parties. This permeability can lead to highly visible conflict, sometimes going on for months or (in the case of presidential nominations) years, even when it eventually encourages compromise. 

And then when it comes to governing, all the Madisonian devices of the Constitution, along with subsequent rules and norms — bicameralism, separated institutions sharing powers, federalism and the rest — make squabbling almost inevitable. The outcome, again, can look ugly. But it also creates opportunities for many people to affect public policy.

A final benefit is that in the U.S. politicians and political officials make policy to a much greater extent than in many other democracies, and civil servants have much less influence. In many countries, elected officials choose the overall policy and then let the bureaucracy figure out how to get it done. In the U.S., far more of the details are up for political conflict. Some argue that policy in the U.S. winds up being too “kludgey” as a result. But there’s a strong argument that in fact ad-hoc policy making is simply a consequence of democracy — and that too much bureaucratic control of policy details places serious limits on self-government.

This isn’t to say that the U.S. political system is ideal. There are plenty of legitimate questions about equality of representation and the ability of all people and groups to be heard meaningfully. And the system doesn’t even live up to its own ideals all that often, although the U.S. hardly the only nation guilty of that.

So why do people find the whole thing so ugly? For one thing, no matter how much lip service most of us give to democracy, we can be uncomfortable with the conflict that’s inherent in having people with very different values and preferences work out shared self-governing. For another, there’s a long strain of U.S. popular culture that is uneasy with self-interest as a part of politics. And, of course, some people don’t accept that others are deserving of equal citizenship. Perhaps the hardest lesson of democracy is that entering into a republic in which the citizens rule can’t prevent each of us from losing sometimes, and often to those who differ from us the most, and that we’re supposed to just accept that no matter how certain we are that a given president is unfit to govern. 

So, back to the top: If the “swamp” is horse-trading and bargaining and seeking political advantage and working for various conflicting interests and all of the rest of it, especially as practiced by elected representatives in the two chambers of Congress, then yup, I’m a big, huge fan of the swamp.

1. Jacqueline R. McAllister at the Monkey Cage on investigating war crimes in South Sudan.

2. Michael Bender on the very Trumpy Republican Senate primary in Ohio.

3. Nathaniel Rakich on President Joe Biden’s approval ratings.

4. Peter Coy on minting the coin.

5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Mark Gongloff  has a great point about the debt limit.