It’s the Institutions, Stupid

Yesterday’s David Brooks column contained a putative contrast between Barack Obama as a champion of “policy change” that’s responsible but dull, and John McCain who “is the champion of systemic change — after two decades of bickering and self-dealing, its time to shake up the whole system in order to get things done.” What does that mean? Brooks doesn’t know, he just says that “McCain promise of change is comprehensive and vehement, though it’s hard to know how it would actually work in office.” Brendan Nyhan is justifiably confused by this and countersthat “in reality, the way ‘policy change’ and ‘systemic change’ typically happen is that the party in control of the presidency changes or the balance of power shifts in Congress.”

That’s true. I would add, though, that I think people should point out that it would be possible, in theory, to actually change the institutions of American politics. In the United States we do this very strange thing where almost every successful politician of either party and almost every pundit has a habit of complaining about gridlock, observing that Washington is broken, and other sundry clichés. And they’re right — we have a set of political institutions that were designed a very long time ago by men who, while intelligent, didn’t share modern values, didn’t have the benefit of observing different democratic political systems in operation, and had no sense of the challenges of modern politics. But at the same time as all this complaining about our broken system, the constitutional order that constitutes the broken system is revered. If, as a country, we really wanted to “change Washington” we could do what the Founders did, decide to scrap the whole thing, elect delegates to a big convention, and write a new one.


Now that’s not going to happen. But smaller institutional changes could be undertaken. Back during the primaries, a lot of liberals criticized Barack Obama for focusing too much on process and not enough on substance. If anything, I thought the problem was just that he didn’t go far enough. Periods of substantive change in American politics have often been associated with real procedural changes in the operations of government. Not “bringing people together” or “changing the culture of blah blah” but, say, actual shifts to curb the use of the filibuster and the power of committee chairs. Those were good ideas when they were done in the 1960s and 1970s, and it would make sense to keep moving in that direction. The prospects for major health care reform or climate change legislation would look very different if it took 50 Senators (plus the Vice President) to pass a bill rather than 60. This stuff is hugely important, and yet nobody talks about it.