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America’s Overrated Decline

CAMBRIDGE – With the approach of the US Congressional elections, questions about the health of America’s political institutions and the future of its global leadership have become rampant, with some citing partisan gridlock as evidence of America’s decline. But is the situation really that bad?

According to the political scientist Sarah Binder, the ideological divide between America’s two main political parties has not been as large as it is now since the end of the nineteenth century. Despite the current gridlock, however, the 111th Congress managed to pass a major fiscal stimulus, health-care reform, financial regulation, an arms-control treaty, and revision of the military policy on homosexuality. Clearly, the US political system cannot be written off (especially if partisan gridlock is cyclical).

Nonetheless, today’s Congress is plagued by low legislative capacity. Though ideological consistency has more than doubled over the last two decades, from 10% to 21% of the public, most Americans do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views, and want their representatives to meet one another halfway. Political parties, however, have become more consistently ideological since the 1970s.

This is not a new problem for the US, whose constitution is based on the eighteenth-century liberal view that power is best controlled by fragmentation and countervailing checks and balances, with the president and Congress forced to compete for control in areas like foreign policy. In other words, the US government was designed to be inefficient, in order to ensure that it could not easily threaten the liberty of its citizens.