Political institutions are pesky things. Many of them are designed to constrain the popular will and uphold core liberal values like freedom of speech, checks and balances, and the rule of law. But this inevitably means that they frequently impede rapid implementation of policy and limit the potential for unadulterated democracy. For many voters on both sides of the political spectrum, this can be frustrating. Trump and his supporters certainly find the limits of presidential power vexing, and they have often ridiculed Senate rules that constrain Trump’s ability to ram his agenda through the legislature. Ironically, many of these same people decried the Obama administration’s efforts at expanding executive power. But, in fairness, that says more about the partisan dysfunction of the U.S. than it does about Trump supporters.
Frankly, those frustrated by the slow and often perplexing system of institutional constraints in modern democracies have a point. As I have already discussed, the checks and balances of the American presidential model help generate antagonistic politics and impede the ability of governments to act decisively during times of crisis. However, they serve an important role in ensuring that the U.S. remains a democracy, and that is very important to remember. One must simply look at Turkey and Poland to see the dangers inherent in giving one person or one political party complete control of the government – dissidents are rounded up and jailed, the judiciary is corrupted and politicized, and previously democratic countries shift dangerously toward illiberalism and dictatorship. Of course, the United States is not Poland or Turkey, and for all Trump’s efforts, the rule of law and democratic norms are still firmly entrenched in the American political psyche (though they are slowly but surely being eroded by President Trump’s actions). But that doesn’t mean that Trump and the GOP’s attempts at breaking or eliminating important institutional checks on power will have no consequences. For example, eliminating the CBO might assist the Republicans in passing their health care bill, but it would also permit a whole range of irresponsible bills that could severely damage the fiscal position of the U.S. to become law. And what happens when the Democrats eventually retake control and use hyper-partisan liberal think tanks to score their bills? I imagine at that point the Republicans will be wishing that they hadn’t been so rash in their elimination of the nonpartisan budget office.
Of course, the CBO issue is only one of many. Republicans have also fully eliminated the Senate filibuster for Executive appointments (a process the Democrats started under Obama) and have apparently all but given up on even feigning bipartisan cooperation on major pieces of legislation. To be clear, not every alteration of established institutions is negative. Occasionally, old rules and regulatory regimes are antiquated to the point of being actively deleterious to the health of a country’s political system. But this is rarely the case, and even when it is, it still behooves us to be conservative when seeking changes to the status quo simply because it is much easier to break norms and institutions than it is to create them. At its root, governing is a question of maintenance and sustainability (though few people seem to understand this): ensuring that the current system remains in a stable equilibrium is far more important than making drastic changes to improve the status quo. And although this aspect of governance might seem simple and unglamorous, it assuredly isn’t. America’s creaking infrastructure and underfunded welfare programs demonstrate this beyond a shadow of a doubt. Major reforms are, of course, also important: abolishing slavery and establishing basic worker protections are two obvious examples. But these kinds of reforms are only possible when the core political institutions of a state are strong enough to absorb the shock. This is why more established democracies are better able to cope with economic and political shocks than younger democracies, for example.
Unfortunately, both parties in the U.S. (though the Republicans are clearly worse in this regard) are apparently willing to sacrifice the core institutions and norms that undergird a successful American democracy. And frustratingly, they are sacrificing these fundamental components of the Republic for the sake of short-term policy gains. What this strategy forgets is that most of the time, the slow and deliberative nature of the U.S. political system is a feature, not a bug. The United States has survived a lot of dark periods in its history, and it has rectified innumerable bad laws, policies, and court rulings. But this has only been possible because of the fundamental strength of American liberal and technocratic institutions, something that can be clearly observed by comparing pre-Civil War America with post-1890s America. Elections and policies are, of course, important. But absent a belief in the value of compromise, liberalism, and norms of behavior, the ability to peacefully reform through new elections will be severely constrained. And once that happens, it will be almost impossible to return to a functioning democratic political system.