As a German student studying in Washington, it’s sometimes hard for me to believe the absurdities the U.S. political system produces. The ongoing U.S. government shutdown—the product of an inability by political elites to forge lasting compromises, as well as the conservative party’s distorted view of social rights—is but the latest example.
The problems underpinning the shutdown are not inherent to democracy, as European models show, but on the contrary are antithetical to it.
Let’s start with the textbook version of the democratic process: After a lengthy process of deliberation and bargaining, the legislature passed a health law three years ago with the necessary majorities. The law’s proponents had to make tradeoffs with its opponents to secure a majority vote, but eventually the law got passed by the representatives of the people. Then the elected president signed the law, and the highest court confirmed it to be compatible with the basic legal principles of the nation. So far so democratic.
Now, three years later, one party suddenly thinks that it’s a good idea to throw all those norms over board and endanger not only the economy of the country and the world, but also to put into question some of the basic principles of democracy.
You could argue that democratic systems can pass illegitimate laws, so there are legitimate occasions to radically resist the status quo—to protest discrimination against minorities, for example, or wars of aggression. And other countries have grave deficiencies as well. But the latest developments are based on some peculiar features specific to the American political system, which can hardly be justified through democratic principles.
First of all, it just so happens that the law we are talking about—the Affordable Care Act—is not only the opposite of an illegitimate law, as the democratic procedures have assured, but in its aspiration to provide universal health coverage, it’s based on a keystone value for every serious democracy. Only through granting social citizenship can the political system truly be of the people, by the people, and for the people—an idea that ironically doesn’t seem to have arrived in the U.S. yet. It requires a very American contortion of thought to see universal health care as a detriment to productivity and liberty, rather than as a means to empower people and give them the meaningful freedom to participate in society.
Secondly, it is peculiar, perhaps even frightening, to see the way the representatives of the people fight over an issue like this. The whole U.S. political system is based on a competitive and adversarial culture. Political survival depends on the ability of U.S. politicians to vanquish or shame their opponents by any means necessary, and the media and even the voters reward them for it. It is obvious what kind of people this treadmill of endless competition allows to go to the top.
Unlike in the more European model of “consensus democracy,” politicians in the U.S. are not trained in finding compromises and cooperating with others—an odd problem, given the relative similarity of the Democratic and Republican parties. In a consensus-oriented democracy, people are forced to sit at the table with others and search for win-win compromises. This has of course a positive effect on the political culture.
Destructive battles like the one in Congress right now are the result of these shortcomings in the U.S. political system and its sometimes undemocratic value system.
Unfortunately, looking back to the last government shutdown, there is reason to believe that the players in Congress won’t have to fear long-term repercussions in terms of their constituencies’ approval. Most of the primary drivers of the shutdown are nestled into deeply partisan districts unlikely to punish such behavior.
So while these deficiencies will keep persisting, it’s hard for the rest of the world not to lose trust in the viability of the American system. We don’t have much of a choice other than to watch the U.S. blindly stagger towards another cliff and hope that it won’t pull the world down with it.