I’m writing this about an hour before the third and final debate of this sordid presidential campaign, and it is resoundingly clear that no matter how well Trump does to clear the decumbent bar the country has set for him, the republicans are thinking past him. The watch-phrase of this final month is “checks and balances,” as in checking what might be a sizable mandate for Hilary Clinton. Translation: Ramp up the obstruction.
Democrats, on the other hand, are allowing themselves to hope for the first time in a while. There were at first whispers of a Senate win, and now they’re speaking quite loudly about taking the House. But I wonder how much it will matter even if they do get what they want. This is not me furthering that obnoxious American habit of equivocating everything in politics, dismissing both parties as corrupt and useless (I always suspect those people just end up voting republican in secret). Democrats are disappointing, but republicans are worse. What I worry about is the possibility that the institution of congress has grown so moribund that no change in leadership will be able save it.
When I hear the recent talk of “checks and balances,” I get taken back to October 2010, when republicans were poised for a massive win in the House. Conservatives at that time talked about checks and balances against Obama, but even centerists and liberals were capable of seeing a silver lining. The prevailing argument in those camps was that if the republicans did take the House, then they could no longer continue to act as petulant children. They would have to take some responsibility for governing the nation. But we know what happened. The dysfunction didn’t just get worse; it got fully institutionalized.
Congress has always been a favorite punching bag for Americans. It’s the branch of the federal government which comes closest to direct democracy, and it’s inherently messy. But it’s never been this close to not functioning at all. We know the reasons why: the persistent, racist denial of Obama’s legitimacy; intensive post-2010 gerrymandering; turning voter suppression into a science; the emergence of the automatic filibuster. In fact, I think the first sign of total collapse will be when a piece of legislation hits the Senate floor without being filibustered–the filibuster being so automatic that everyone forgets to actually invoke it. These measures were introduced as a virus, meant to crash the Obama program. But it is looking like this bug has now become the distinguishing feature of whole operating system.
My concern is that a shift in party control, even if accompanied by wave of good natured bipartisanship sweeping across the aisles, may not matter much. Even if the democrats take control of congress, the right may still be the most active force in government. This is because the post-Obama right wing agenda is nihilism, and the method is entropy. If your goal is the annihilation of public institutions, then all you have to do to win is let them disintegrate. To do this, you needn’t negotiate and persuade; just obstruct. And if the operating system is already programmed to self-obstruct, you need only sit back and watch it happen.
The consequences of this virus in the operating system are already visible. The burden of legislation is falling on the executive and judicial branches. But the virus is now crashing the judicial OS, meaning that power is becoming ever more concentrated in the executive branch. We already have an oligarchy, but we are slouching towards autocracy. Checks and balances indeed.
What to do about this? I’m not sure. Move to a parliamentary system? Learn to stop worrying and love the virus?