Musings on Democracy

I just realized something. First I’m reading this from Matthew Yglasias about why Congress and the White House can’t work anything out:

Note that if Obama were a hereditary monarch, this would be something like the historical process through which the United Kingdom became a parliamentary system with a symbolic head of state. Parliament started with a relatively bounded authority over granting new tax revenue to the king. But the king would, in practice, need new tax revenue periodically in order to fight wars. This fact, combined with parliament’s greater democratic legitimacy, victory in the English Civil War, and successful perpetration of a kind of coup in 1688 allowed it—and specifically the House of Commons within parliament—to over time seize control of the entire policy agenda. But of course Obama’s not a hereditary monarch, and both the House and the White House have independent claims to democratic legitimacy.

Probably the most sensible resolution to this is the original British one — establish a single center of power by systematically destroying the influence of the others, in their case the monarchy and the House of Lords. In a parliamentary system, there’s one head of government who’s indisputably in charge, so people know who to reward when things are going well and who to blame when they’re not.

But that was way too straightforward for our founders.

Instead, our system puts a premium on making it really hard to get anything done — something that never seems to stop people from complaining about how the government can’t get anything done. It also leads us to put a huge amount of power in the executive branch, run by people who only answer to the president (and whose appointments Congress has discovered they can effectively block whenever they want).

The epiphany I had was that most American states have actually come with a more refined version of this approach, because at the state level a lot of these officials are elected. I grew up regarding this as a somewhat bad idea because, say, the attorney general’s job shouldn’t be politicized, but I’m coming around to the idea that that was a pretty naïve view of politics. Not only do appointed officials have to keep the person who appointed them happy, but a president who’s ideologically hostile to the mission of, say, the EPA, has an incentive to appoint people who aren’t interested in the agency’s mission. (To say nothing of presidents who are ideologically hostile to the entire federal government.) Elected officials have a slightly stronger incentive to do their jobs well.

I’m not ready to say having elected cabinet officials would be a great idea — there are fifteen cabinet departments, plus quasi-cabinet-level agencies like the EPA, which is kind of a lot to ask voters who may not even know who their congressman is. The parliamentary system has the advantage of being simpler. But if we’re worried that copying the British means admitting that the whole revolution was a mistake or something, there are ways we can improve the American model if anyone’s really interested in making it work.

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