Proposed Solutions to America’s Perceived Political Decay

Last year, renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama released the second volume of his two-part work on political systems, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. In his work, Mr. Fukuyama illustrates how America’s current political decay is largely the result of our remaining fixed to the outmoded system of Madisonian checks and balances, which no longer meets the demands of our industrial and globalized society. He contends that this system became antiquated when the United States transitioned from an agrarian to industrial economy in the aftermath of the Civil War. In Fukuyama’s view, our rigid adherence to a despoiled political institution is the crux of the issue currently at hand that stagnates modern politics. Though Fukuyama has an unabashedly bleak prognosis of the future course of America, I am too much an optimist to believe that America’s best days are behind her. As such, in the following I will propose a number of “prospective solutions” that may be implemented to our current institutions to offset, if not altogether remedy, some of the gravest issues we experience today.

Fukuyama portrays today’s executive branch as vastly undermined by the judiciary, which has been a political tour de force ever since the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared legal segregation unconstitutional. In conjunction with the growing influence of the judiciary, self-serving interest groups have adopted new techniques to corrupt policymaking, resulting in an overly expensive, complex and inefficient legislative process that ultimately hurts the average citizen due to excessive costs and time. To address this issue, I think it is best to differentiate the purported undermining of the executive branch from the excessive power given to the courts and interest groups. As such, according to Fukuyama, the problem of today’s executive is that it has been almost completely debased by other political actors, which have stripped away its constitutionally prescribed powers for the advancement of their own political gains.

Though, by placing the United States’ executive branch within the context of other democratic systems, we recognize that it falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in terms of executive dominance. The United States is ranked lower than most parliamentary states, such as the UK, and higher than some of its presidential counterparts. However, perhaps this placement is inadequate for a country of such magnitude and political clout in world affairs. By Fukuyama’s line of logic, “separation of powers” is essentially defective in a political system with so many extraneous political actors that virtually control legislative enforcement.

Accordingly, the United States should adopt some of the principles of a majoritarian executive, as opposed to a presidential one. He subsequently cites the example of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, in which the legislature was forced to appropriate $700 billion following a direct order from the presidency. This exemplifies the point that, aside from a major crisis, the executive branch seldom has the opportunity to procure real authority over the legislature, which beleaguers the system of checks and balances, as should-be executive power brokers lack the instruments to control public policy.

In order to resolve this matter, it would be fruitful to vest more power in the House of Representatives. It is imperative that the federal government becomes more concentrated and uniform instead of autonomous and decentralized in order to increase both efficiency and representation in the long run. In such a hypothetical case, the House would augment its power by enmeshing with the executive, but remain popularly elected (much like how things were prior to the passage of the 17th amendment). In true majoritarian fashion, the lower house would have authority over the upper house. If a vote of no confidence were part of the deal for all parties, then the House could also call for a new election in times of irreconcilable dispute.

By making the executive, which in modern times includes the presidency along with its multifarious bureaucratic agencies, more accountable—the direct result would be greater democracy in the long run because the House, Senate, and presidency would all be incumbent upon the former, which is directly linked to the people. Though this appears to compromise ‘representativeness’ for ‘governability’ at first glance, one must also consider Fukuyama’s point about our country’s inflexible stance of decentralization as the only means to democratic reform. In most cases it makes the system even more undemocratic as ordinary citizens simply do not have the time, money or organizational skills to actually lobby their congressmen like major interest groups do, such as the NRA.

In reality, such a tremendous overhaul is highly implausible, but also unnecessary. Minor changes to the system such as reshaping the relationship between the executive and legislature, particularly the House and cabinet, might be the incremental first steps needed to make our government efficient once again. What is of most importance, however, is that we separate from the ingrained notion that decentralization is in every scenario the answer to democratic reform and efficiency, as today’s debilitated political climate certainly attests otherwise.

With all things considered, executive revamp is the essential first step to remedy the remaining issues of the system. This would require a two-part process: the first would be to concentrate related, but currently autonomous government agencies under one primary authority that would remain isolated from outside political forces. What this entails is allocating tremendous amounts of sovereignty to the agency, much like today’s Federal Reserve, which is the second step. The intent would be for it to remain apolitical—that being, not subject to interest group influences. Such an overhaul of the executive branch is not unprecedented—a famous example is the cabinet’s reorganization under FDR in the wake of the Great Depression, which resulted in the formation of the Executive Office of the President. A more recent example is the executive renovation under the Bush administration, in which various government agencies were pooled together to form a new cabinet position, the Department of Homeland Security. These notable instances demonstrate Fukuyama’s notion that sweeping changes in our current system are predicated on drastic events—in Bush’s case, the 9/11 terrorists attacks—that bring the country together.  FDR’s presidency was followed by a thirty-year period of unprecedented economic growth, bolstered by a postwar economy and new-found political influence resulting from the legacy he left behind. Accordingly, though it is not implausible to say a governmental revamp of similar proportion could happen again, the fundamental flaw of the system is that it cannot self-correct itself.

The next course of action would be to assess the degree to which unrestrained judicial activism working in tandem with interest groups has corrupted politics to the point of near dysfunction. It is important to recognize that the two are not mutually exclusive entities: powerful interest groups such as the ABA lobbying members of Congress, particularly within the Democratic Party, to delay tort reform which breeds an interminable pattern of gratuitous litigation  that reduces efficiency by preventing government agencies from doing their job, as noted earlier. The end result is delayed action, which in the best-case scenario is costlier than would have been otherwise if the agency were allowed to administrate freely from the start. Both major American political parties have exacerbated this particular issue by maintaining that the privatization of the prosecutorial function is the most effective way to escape the corrupting influences of big government. As such, they prefer a system that subjects courts to the adulterating influences of interest groups in the private sector, instead of the federal government.

Growth in government is correspondingly characterized by an expansion in bureaucracy. Though it was not originally an issue, over time the national government delegated its authority over to the courts, instead of the executive, to monitor and enforce the law. This result, coupled with the public’s inherent distaste for big government, gradually engendered optimal conditions for interest groups, who took advantage of the extremely liberal attitude towards litigation, enabling virtually any pressure group with remote links to the issue to file a lawsuit.

To make matters worse, our legislators condoned this very system, one derived from Madisonian principle, though undemocratic in practice and contradictory to the principles by which our nation was founded. Over time, the system only worsened as power was vested in fewer and fewer groups, who became reluctant to relinquish their prestige for a more democratic alternative. Thus, while the Madisonian model is theoretically equipped to engender democracy, the system fails altogether if the playing field becomes uneven—which is all but determined when a society privileges the judiciary as much as it does the executive. However, Fukuyama’s pejorative take on the judicial branch is a problem rooted in the American system spanning decades, if not centuries. The issue is that while judicial review is not in the constitution per se, it has nevertheless rooted itself so deeply within the American fabric that to suggest such a trend could be reversed would be ludicrous. Moreover, considering the marked transformations over the past fifty years whereby burgeoning democracies have done away with their previous systems, judicial review is arguably at its peak prominence. Accordingly, to try to stem the tide of judicial review in an era where especially “consensus societies” have adopted it as a central tenet to their democracies would be absurd.

Even steadfast majoritarian systems like the UK have not been without pressures to at least consider judicial review. In the UK’s case, the pressure is augmented because since joining the EU, it is not only held accountable to a superior authority for the first time, but an authority that has adopted a federal system no less. As such, not even the lauded UK has been spared of globalization’s mounting pressures.

There are a few avenues the U.S. could pursue to fix this problem. The first would be for one of the national parties to make tort reform a central part of its party platform. In addition, the party in question must also relinquish its affinity for the privatization of prosecution and instead let it be managed by the previously described sovereign executive agency receiving modest legislative oversight. In principle, the Republican Party seems well equipped to adopt this measure. Central to American conservatism is a belief that the courts should be restrained from making policy, which parallels the strict-constructionist philosophy of conservative Supreme Court justices. However, they would also have to compromise their stalwart belief that privatization is the sole effectual means of doing things.

Though I have just outlined a seemingly plausible resolution to the problem, it would be much more difficult to accomplish in practice due to each major party’s entanglement with interest groups. This proposal also is at odds to some extent with both Republican and Democratic Party platforms, meaning there would be an inexorable conflict if either party tried to adopt it to boot. I am not suggesting that such partisan conflicts are so severe that they are virtually insurmountable. I do believe, however, that considering the many contradictory factors in place, such changes would be exceedingly difficult to implement, and even harder to ensure efficiency once implemented.

Lastly, I would like to focus attention on political corporatism, as it pertains to the organizational arrangement of societal resources. Broadly speaking, corporatism boosts the influence of unions in the public and private sectors. Though corporatism has been implemented to various degrees of success in numerous democratic countries throughout Europe, particularly Scandinavian ones, its principles have been mostly rejected by American society due to reasons both philosophical and institutional. Because “pure corporatism” is most frequently found in societies with a more effective number of parliamentary parties, the United States’ electoral system is ostensibly at odds with such a system. In addition, our system of federalism would make it very difficult to implement on a state-by-state basis. For instance, if New York mandated that most employees be required to join a union, businesses would relocate to another state, much as they do to other countries. Therefore, a “corporate America” would be fundamentally limited by the restraints of extant societal institutions (i.e. the electoral college), making it exceptionally difficult to carry out. Fortunately, it is rather implausible to say “full-fledged corporatism” will ever be established within the United States. On the flip side, I see no harm to mull over how a few of its tenets could be used to at least shed light on a number of pressing issues currently at hand. For one, union membership is at an all-time low since the 1930s. If union rates rose to a more respectable figure, such as they were in the three decades following FDR’s presidency, this would invariably lead to greater efficiency, as society’s resources would be distributed evenly across the board.

In the short-run, democracy would be compromised for governability, but in time the populace would recognize how a system that places cooperation over self-interested lobbyists is fundamentally more democratic. Gridlock would absolve and trade deficits would disappear, as businesses would be mandated to stay here, and manufacture their products within American borders. However, general economic efficiency would not be compromised: labor would be better fitted for such a system because government-sponsored vocational training would create a well-trained labor force that would make up for restraints placed on business mobility.

Ultimately, it is quite unlikely that America would accept every aspect of corporatism, nor should it. It may well be that “quasi-corporatism”, as I described above, or any other like-mannered policy simply won’t work in the United States. However, one of federalism’s greatest tenets is that it allows regional governments to experiment with different ideas. In so doing, the nation as a whole is enhanced by what is determined on an individual state-by-state basis. As such, the United States would be better off overall if state governments more regularly self-initiated novel ideas, to the tune of some of my aforementioned proposals.


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