The Shutdown is a Constitutional Crisis

So says Jonathan Chait.

In a merciful twist of fate, Juan Linz did not quite live to see his prophecy of the demise of American democracy borne out. Linz, the Spanish political scientist who died last week, argued that the presidential system, with its separate elections for legislature and chief executive, was inherently unstable. In a famous 1990 essay, Linz observed, “All such systems are based on dual democratic legitimacy: No democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people.” Presidential systems veered ultimately toward collapse everywhere they were tried, as legislators and executives vied for supremacy. There was only one notable exception: the United States of America.

Linz attributed our puzzling, anomalous stability to “the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties.” The Republicans had loads of moderates, and conservative whites in the South still clung to the Democratic Party. At the time he wrote that, the two parties were already sorting themselves into more ideologically pure versions, leaving us where we stand today: with one racially and economically polyglot party of center-left technocracy and one ethnically homogenous reactionary party. The latter is currently attempting to impose its program by threat upon the former. The events in Washington have given us a peek into the Linzian nightmare.

Both House Republicans and the President lay claim to democratic legitimacy and there is no system to resolve the dispute.  So we’re left with a slugfest.

Sanford Levinson’s book, Our Undemocratic Constitution, lays out some of the inherent problems with the US system.  He argued:

Significant distortions and outright failures of American politics are produced because of-and not merely in spite of-the structure of the government imposed by the Constitution, whatever the contribution of other factors like the mode of campaign financing. [snip]

However divided we are as a country these days, what paradoxically may unite far more than a majority of Americans are deep feelings of inefficacy with regard to being able to participate in what are ostensibly institutions promoting self-governance, as well as feelings of dismay at the actual legislation that is passed (or not passed).

The point is incredibly simple – our system of government as designed includes too many veto points to function if a minority is able to block one of those veto points.  What we’re seeing, right now, is the result of that system in action.  The shutdown, in which a minority of the House Republicans are able to take the entire nation hostage, is a result of a governing system which diffuses both power and authority.In a parliamentary system, the head of government is chosen by the majority party (or governing coalition) from the legislative branch.  The head of government is empowered to enact a specific policy platform and is able to do so because he/she is the same party as that which dominates the legislative branch.  The US system, with two, equally powerful houses of Congress, and a separately elected President, includes multiple points at which a minority party can frustrate the will of the majority.

Our current governing crisis is a covert Constitutional crisis.  House Republicans essentially argue that the polling shows the ACA is unpopular and therefore they are on the side of the people.  That’s simply the convenient, current argument.  The deeper battle is informed by a Republican party controlled by movement conservatism which denies the legitimacy of any Democratic president.  It’s not just that conservatives deny Barack Obama’s legitimacy, the denied Bill Clinton’s as well.  As a result, what we’re seeing play out in DC right now is a slow motion attempt to strip a Democratic president, any Democratic president, of presidential power by a Republican congress which refuses to acknowledge the validity of the outcomes of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.  It’s not about any specific policy.  Any and every policy supported by a Democratic president is considered inherently invalid and illegitimate.

At Americablog, Becca Morn argued:

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of AMERICAblog that many Republicans have never accepted the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. They’ve been cooking polls to make themselves and their policies seem more popular than they are. When the overwhelming majority of legitimate mainstream polls say their GOP candidates are going to get trounced, they deny the polls are accurate. When they lose elections, they cry fraud, and if there’s any way to tie up the election results in court, they’ll do so.

The Democrats, whatever their many and manifest flaws, don’t do this. Crooked Democratic ballot box shenanigans pretty much ended with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Democrats don’t need to cheat. Republican candidates and policies are unpopular enough, all the Dems really need to do is turn out enough legitimate voters.

Which is, of course, why the Republicans are pulling out all the stops to prevent Democrat-voting demographics from being able to cast a ballot. Their claims it’s because there’s rampant fraud are absolutely bogus.

Everyone is familiar with the ridiculous “birther” conspiracy theories about Barack Obama. Anybody who isn’t as loony as Orly Taitz or ego-maniacal as Donald Trump knows those allegations are total rubbish. Unfounded. Ridiculous. Would not last ten seconds in a legitimate court of law. Nevertheless, the persistence of this meme is an important insight into the psyche of the political opposition.

Birtherism, along with other lies — such as referring to Obama as a Nazi/Communist/Socialist and/or secret Muslim — plus the constant lies about Obamacare “death panels” and the like are how the GOP leaders and their wingnut media lackeys keep the rubes both afraid and entertained. While Louie Gohmert and Michelle Bachman and Sarah Whatshername might actually believe the nonsense crossing their pouty, poxy lips, some ‘serious’ Republicans will dance around with birther language, but they don’t buy the snake oil they’re peddling.

The constitutional crisis is grounded in the refusal of conservatives to accept the outcomes of elections with which they disagree.  The result is that conservatives are attacking the constitutional system they claim to venerate.

And so the crisis grinds on with enough Republican believing the nonsense to keep the government shutdown and to cause yet another crisis at the next opportunity.  It’s not about any actual policy or bill or program.  Movement conservatives have defined American-ness in such a limited way that there is no way for them to accept a black Democratic president as legitimate.  And in the face of a system which seems to refuse to accept their arguments about his illegitimacy, they believe they have only the most extreme tactics available to them.

  1. #1 by Nathan Erkkila on October 5, 2013 - 11:07 pm

    To be honest, this system was designed to make it difficult to pass laws.

  2. #2 by Richard Warnick on October 6, 2013 - 12:52 am

    I checked and found out that if we didn’t have health insurance through our employers, my wife and I would have to shell out 18 percent of our before-tax income for an ACA “silver” plan — or pay a fine.

    OTOH shutting down the federal government does not prevent the ACA from going into effect. The smart thing for the enemies of the law would be to call attention to the problems, and campaign against them in next year’s election. Also hope that the media forget this health care “reform” was a Republican invention.

    • #3 by Glenden Brown on October 6, 2013 - 8:11 am

      Richard – my hope is that liberal opponents of the ACA get their act together and put forward a reform proposal to deal with the issues you’ve highlighted – creation of a public option would be top of my list, some variation of Medicare for all.

      • #4 by Richard Warnick on October 6, 2013 - 11:15 am

        It would be nice if there was room in the public square for a progressive critique of the ACA. I’m not sure there is.

  3. #5 by Glenden Brown on October 6, 2013 - 8:06 am

    Nathan – absolutely. That’s one of the central critiques of Sanford Levinson’s book on the constitution. US political history is often described in terms of “party systems” – a period during which one political party was dominant and enacted a coherent policy program. We’re currently in the sixth party system, which I’ve heard described as a period of de-alignment. Where previous systems saw one party holding power, our current system is characterized by divided government, policy drift and increasing polarization. I know some watchers thought the 2006 and 2008 elections represented the emergence of a new party system but 2010 and 2012 seem like a continuation of the sixth party system. The result is that government in the US grinds to a halt. Given that our constitutional system is designed to make passing laws difficult, what we’re seeing is a reasonable outcome of the sixth party system in extremis.

  4. #7 by Richard Warnick on October 8, 2013 - 6:52 am

    Faux News calls it a “slimdown.” But it’s a shutdown.

    9 Utah counties declare state of emergency due to gov’t shutdown

    ST. GEORGE — As the government shutdown keeps a closed sign on national parks across the country, hindering local tourism, nine Utah counties have declared a state of emergency due to “economic disruption.”

    • #8 by brewski on October 8, 2013 - 9:19 am

      If there is a “shutdown”, then why is the ACA website operating?

      You are very gullible.

      The national park thing is all fabricated.

      • #9 by Richard Warnick on October 8, 2013 - 9:27 am

        Does your TV only get Faux News Channel? The ACA has a dedicated funding stream that does not depend on congressional appropriations.

        The National Park Service, like other federal land management agencies, has sent home everybody except superintendents, law enforcement officers and fire crews, all of whom are working without pay. That’s a fact, not a fabrication.

        The level of self-delusion on the other side of this shutdown/default fiasco is truly frightening.

        • #10 by Richard Warnick on October 8, 2013 - 9:58 am

          It’s totally a shutdown. Everything is closed except the Department of Defense and law enforcement agencies, and some others like the National Weather Service. This is not a joke for locked-out federal employees, those who have to work without pay, or the public. There is 70 percent disapproval of the Republican Shutdown.

  5. #11 by brewski on October 8, 2013 - 10:26 am

    That’s really funny. You’re kidding, right?

    • #12 by Richard Warnick on October 8, 2013 - 10:46 am

      All very real. We in the reality-based community pay attention to what’s really happening.

  6. #13 by brewski on October 9, 2013 - 11:44 am

    Funny, I just talked to a neighbor of mine last night who is a Federal employee. He is back at work.

    You must not be very valuable.

    • #14 by Richard Warnick on October 9, 2013 - 11:48 am

      Anecdotal, assuming I would even believe you (not a safe assumption). 😉

      • #15 by brewski on October 9, 2013 - 12:09 pm

        Anecdotal = an actual person with an actual job with the actual Federal government who is actually working today

        • #16 by Richard Warnick on October 9, 2013 - 12:14 pm

          We know that most of the DOD civilians were called back. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a shutdown or isn’t a shutdown. Estimated cost of the Republican Shutdown so far: $2 billion.

          If it lasts three to four weeks, Moody’s has estimated that the total cost to the economy could come to $55 billion. The shutdown could reduce economic output by 1.4 percent.

          Remember, the House of Representatives could hold a 15-minute roll call vote and end this!

  7. #19 by Richard Warnick on October 9, 2013 - 12:39 pm

    The Affordable Care Act is here to stay. The Koch brothers are waving the white flag now.

    • #20 by brewski on October 9, 2013 - 12:45 pm

      The Unaffordable Lack-of-Care Act is the worst law in the history of the United States.

      Only 31% of people think it was a good idea.

      It would fail in Congress today if voted on.

      Obama has higher disapprovals than approvals.

      Democrats want to hurt people.

      Everyone seems essential except for Richard Warnick.

      This must be a bad time for you.

      • #21 by Richard Warnick on October 9, 2013 - 12:48 pm

        I am popping lots of popcorn. The Tea-GOP is destroying the Republican Party, and they brought it on themselves. I only wish the Dems were worthy of this, it’s better than they deserve.

      • #22 by cav on October 9, 2013 - 2:25 pm

        We shoulda cried louder not to adopt the ridiculous Romney-care Healthcare rewrite.

        I mean, Bain and the Heritage group aren’t exactly watching our for the little guy.

  8. #23 by brewski on October 9, 2013 - 12:52 pm

    Real Americans are working and sending checks TO the Federal Government.

    Obama goons are trying to stop them:,0,4964696.story

    • #24 by ikswerb on October 10, 2013 - 6:41 pm

      Real Americans are working. What are you doing?

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