In 1961, in one of his Amherst College events after his return from reading his poem “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Robert Frost told people — I was among them — that he urged the new president “to be more Irish than Harvard.” For JFK, the advice was probably unnecessary, but if one substitutes “Chicago” for “Irish,” Barack Obama surely could have benefited from it.
But Obama, despite his political timidity and his administration’s screw-ups, doesn’t deserve the pounding he got for the Democrats’ defeats last week. A lot more blame belongs to the misconceived constitutional and institutional structure that underlies today’s partisanship, gridlock and sheer political sabotage in Washington. And that misconceived structure dates back to the very founding of our nation.
Sixty years ago, the Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz concluded that the nation’s founders created a constitutional system that, with its complicated system of checks and balances, was designed never to work too well or too fast and sometimes not at all. The framers, for all their wisdom, he said, were more than a little fearful of what the unwashed democratic masses might do with their votes.
Except for the Civil War, the system usually worked. It kept the nation safe, promoted domestic tranquillity, helped build canals and railroads, provided land for small farmers and irrigation in the arid West. This success was rooted in popular agreement on most underlying matters, and because the nation, with its vast resources, enjoyed two centuries of growth, that seemed to confirm its basic beliefs.
But with the loss of jobs from today’s technological revolution, with globalization and the growing economic and political competition from abroad, with the large number of new non-European immigrants and the resurgent racism that has fueled and with the way voters have sorted themselves politically and socially according to where they live — when red places get redder and the blue get bluer — the chances of its working smoothly and efficiently have become ever more tenuous. Excepting only major crises, will the next Congress and the president be able to settle any of the nation’s now familiar contentious issues — climate change, immigration, education policy, to name a few?
The voters this year were said to be angry with their dysfunctional Congress, but most of their representatives in the House vote just as their constituents want. If they didn’t, the voters wouldn’t have re-elected nearly all of them.
Add to that our cockamamie representation in the Senate, a necessary compromise in 1787 to coax support from the small states to get the Constitution written and ratified. Under that compromise, each voter in California, with its 38 million people, now has about 1/60th the clout of each of Wyoming’s 600,000. Is this one person, one vote?
Although the final numbers aren’t in — we won’t know for sure until after the Louisiana runoff in December — even with their upcoming majority, Senate Republicans probably still won’t represent as many Americans as the Democrats. Two of the nation’s four most populous states, California and New York, are solid blue; only one, Texas, has two Republican senators. The fourth, Florida, is represented by one Democrat and one Republican.
Consider the awful political setup that the president and Democrats faced:
There is the Senate’s misbegotten filibuster rule, which allows 41 senators can outvote the other 59 and which the minority Republicans, relying on it a record number of times, have used to block virtually every major Obama initiative and countless appointments for the past six years. Will Senate Minority Leader-to-be Harry Reid’s Democrats now play the same game with the upcoming Republican majority?
There are the nation’s increasingly gerrymandered House districts, where many seats are now decided in primaries and thus encourage political extremism and make compromises ever more difficult to achieve.
And there is the awesome, corrupting power of money, and state voter ID laws and other measures to discourage poor people and minorities from voting, all in the name of preventing a few rare instances of voting fraud.
Add these up and you have a political structure that hell wouldn’t have. It’s the sort of “democracy” in which a man can be declared president, as George W. Bush was in 2000, with a half million fewer votes than his opponent.
Yes, most of us can name some notorious examples of Obama administration mismanagement — the malfunctioning Department of Veterans Affairs medical system, the slow and confused rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the slow and uncertain Centers for Disease Control and Prevention response to the Ebola panic (which some Republicans exploited in their campaigns far beyond the danger that the disease presented); the equally slow and fuzzy U.S. response to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It’s a long list.
But as in all elections, this one had a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? element to it. How much credit did Obama get for the improved economy? How much for ACA, even from the millions who now have health care insurance for the first time? How much, despite all the GOP warnings about terrorists slipping across the borders, for the absence of domestic terrorism and the elimination of Osama bin Laden?
This election was a serious setback for Democrats and for progressive politics generally: not only the loss of control in the U.S. Senate and of a few seats in the House but also a rolling rout that left more state legislatures in Republican hands than at any other time in memory. The idea that Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the Senate’s leading global warming denier, will now chair the Committee on Environment and Public Works is by itself a measure of the defeat. What modern nation would put itself in such a position?
Nothing in our politics seems to last forever. Many more GOP Senate seats will be vulnerable in 2016 than the number of Democratic seats that were at risk this year. And while the GOP seems to be trying to liberate itself from some of its tea party extremes, Hillary Clinton — indeed any Democrat — will have a fat target in an all-GOP Congress. She might even call it the do-nothing Congress. After the Senate Republicans, Clinton was this month’s big winner.
Back in the 1990s, I thought California was a hopeless mess. Since then, new voters — Latino, Asian, young — and new leadership (or old leaders like Gov. Jerry Brown with new approaches) have begun to re-energize the state.
With our changing political demographics, with younger voters, it could happen at the national level as well, despite our convoluted 18th century system and the modern distortions that have been laid on top of it. (“There is a Providence,” Otto von Bismarck supposedly said, “that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.”) But it could take a long time. It’s what the founders intended.