The Health of American Politics

CAMBRIDGE – When the United States Congress approved President Barack Obama’s plan to extend health-care coverage to nearly all Americans, it marked the most important social legislation the country had seen since the 1960’s. While Republican opposition remains strong, the law was a major domestic political victory for Obama.

Its enactment also has broader implications, because, like Obama’s election in 2008, it addresses questions about the health of America’s political system. After all, it was once widely asserted that an African-American without a political machine could not become president.

Recently, many observers argued that America’s gridlocked political system would prevent the country from translating its abundant power resources into leadership. As one perceptive journalist recently argued, “America still has the means to address nearly any of its structural weaknesses… energy use, medical costs, the right educational and occupational mix to rebuild a robust middle class. That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke.”

Power conversion – translating power resources into effective influence – is a long-standing problem for the US. The Constitution is based on an eighteenth-century liberal view that power is best controlled by fragmentation and countervailing checks and balances.