The Economist’s “Lexington” has an odd column which puts its finger on exactly what’s so unusually dysfunctional about the U.S. Congress and then spends the rest of its column-inches missing the point. But here’s the great insightful part:
Above all, British politicians accept the rules of a simple game: the ruling party governs (occasionally in coalition) while the opposition bides its time.
American politics, as Lexington notes, is totally different from that. And this drives all sorts of difference. It’s an important insight, and I think it highlights why it’s important to get a comparative perspective on things. The grand poobahs of Washington tend to instead focus on personality characteristics. Politicians are just too mean and narrow-minded and need to get nicer! Lexington correctly sees that personal behavior is driven by institutional settings, and American institutions drive a certain kind of gridlock on conflict. And yet his conclusion forgets everything he’s learned:
America needs to make big changes if it is to live within its means. But this will not be done by tinkering with its system of government. It is the people who work the system who need to change, primarily by meeting their opponents half way. They could make a start by asking a member of the other party over for dinner.
This just really can’t be right if you think about it. Get some policy writers from diverse perspectives in a room together, and you’ll quickly find points of common ground and win-win compromises emerging. Get some graybeard former politicians from diverse perspectives in a room together, and you’ll quickly find points of common ground and win-win compromises emerging. Get some active politicians from diverse perspective in a room together to talk about an issue that’s not at the fore-front of the political agenda, and you’ll quickly find points of common ground and win-win compromises emerging (think the Wyden-Bennett Health Americans Act). And yet it doesn’t happen. Why doesn’t it happen? It’s because of characteristics of the system that are much larger than any one man, woman, or dinner party.