I pitch around terms like “failed state” and “ungovernable,” in referring to our crashing nation state, but I imagine that these are just words for nearly all who may chance by.

The dramatic difference between where we already are, though, and how much more functional our political systems were just within my lifetime might offer helpful context.

An approximate and abridged timeline of dysfunction:

  • c. 1980 amending the U.S. Constitution becomes impossible
  • c. 1990 multi-day government shutdowns enter the picture
  • c. 2005 steady growth in filibusters takes hockey-stick upward turn
  • c. 2010 significant reform via legislation becomes impossible
  • 2011 gerrymandering approaches perfection; debt ceiling brinkmanship
  • 2015 total blockade of cross-party judicial appointments
  • 2018 Violence Against Women Act cannot even get renewed
  • 2019 total blockade of cross-party legislation
  • 2020 broad Republican consent for schemes to reject a presidential election defeat

I don’t think this pattern points to “an epiphany” followed by a sudden return to cooperation and responsible good governance.

People are mostly awful at recognizing gradual change or patterns. (Ironically, conspiracy beliefs are hugely popular; I suppose they tend to be more gripping stories than corresponding real events.) Just now, finally, maybe, a few more elites are starting to notice that the Republican Party is engaged in a war—something it has been doing nonstop for at least a decade.

Demolition of the ideas that all legislators have some sort of fundamental shared responsibility to the common good, and that some sort of broader compromise is an obligation throughout politics, has been underway for at least half a century. Things didn’t used to be like this. That’s not to say that we should long for the old, unjust and ultimately unstable way things were. But it was a kind of functioning system and we don’t have even that now or any direct prospect for building a new one.

Speculative investors say “the trend is your friend, until it’s not,” which is another way of saying “past performance does not guarantee future results.” But, analyzing information we have—which is restricted to what’s happening now and what has preceded it—and forming some kind of expectation about what we will experience in future is about all we have.

I’m not up to making detailed predictions about what will break, next, or when. One blog I’m reading lately predicts civil war within about five years; I can say that this does not seem wildly fanciful. I do think that, at best, this zombie failed state will continue to lurch along, inflicting and experiencing more damage. Something must replace it but “the new cannot yet be born” and I seriously doubt that when and if it is, that will happen within the existing system.

Notes on my list for what it’s worth:

Many of these dates are approximate and inevitably somewhat arbitrary; within that context, I think that the poleaxing of momentum behind the Equal Rights Amendment is as good a marker as any for an end to the very broad consensus required for amending the U.S. Constitution. Since then only one more very small-ball amendment reached the extreme threshold required, and even that was nearly 30 years ago. Amending the Constitution was meant to be difficult, and maybe it should be, but it was not meant to be and should not be impossible. Realistically, it now is.

When I was born, one multi-day government shutdown would have shocked the world, I think; now it’s a recurrent feature ho hum. To some extent, legislation over time has insulated essential services from “shutdowns,” but this is still not what a healthy political system should do.

Wikipedia’s chart on filibusters has two inflection points, I would say. One in the late 1960s as the right’s long war really got started, and a second in the late 00s.

A lot happened 2009-2011 to really tear up the old system of bipartisan consensus dealmaking. Republicans responded to a landslide vote which installed a national Democratic-majority trifecta by going full sabotage; we’re unlikely to see again the kind of Senate supermajority which passed the Affordable Care Act on a one-party basis and unlikely to see significant policy reform legislation, either. Republicans, it’s critical to take note, not only moved toward opposing everything during the Obama administration—they also made no significant legislative reforms even when they had a trifecta government in 2017-18. They’re now a sabotage party. Their major legislation during the Trump administration was simply a ram-raid on the federal treasury, squeezed through the “budget reconciliation” kludge on a one-party basis (despite rightwing Democrat Joe Manchin practically pleading for any kind of token participation he could use to justify voting for it).

Republicans’ 2011 nationwide gerrymandering scheme combined a warfare mindset with ripened technology to inflict nearly permanent and irreversible wounds on democratic representation. A decade later and plenty of Republican state-legislature majorities, sustained through gerrymandering, are in a position to use their rigged maps to draw new rigged maps for another decade, without any obvious limit to the cycle. The partisan-captured Supreme Court has blessed partisan gerrymandering; reform legislation from Congress is basically impossible; and states which don’t have a right of citizen initiative are unlikely to get it in this environment.

The debt-ceiling standoff the same year was a big hint that this sabotage will not be contained forever in the realm of “political stuff” on TV which doesn’t affect the real world. This was an absolutely routine, “must-pass” but also important act; Republicans took it and America’s credit rating hostage; Obama negotiated with them; Republicans paid no penalty; their Congressional caucuses are more rabid now than they were then.

Once Mitch McConnell got the Senate majority leader’s gavel in 2015, he elevated sabotage from the approach of a minority party to that of even an in-power Republican Party, where it has remained since even when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. Despite a temporary, false pretext to be standing up for a principal, Republicans simply united around a 100% partisan approach to judicial appointments which denies the judiciary to Democrats unless they control the White House and Senate, both.

By 2018, even the Violence Against Women Act—which was already law—could not get renewed. Just five years earlier, the Senate voted 78-22 for renewal. But six of the “no” votes later become the highest-ranking Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee. This too should shatter any dreams of “big bipartisan deals.” Republicans would not even permit renewal of legislation which had won renewal by more than three to one, just five years earlier.

Voters did in 2018 give Democrats such a resounding mandate that the party won a healthy House majority on maps which were supposed to make that impossible. Republicans responded by basically acting as though the U.S. House of Representatives no longer even existed. Committee oversight was rebuffed; subpoenas were ignored; the Senate responded to articles of impeachment with no more than a sham “trial” without witnesses or documents; and House-passed legislation could not even get hearings in the Republican-controlled Senate. Even the signature “For the People Act” which Democrats ran on in 2018 as their priority and passed first-thing in 2019 could not even get a hearing. The “Schoolhouse Rock” model for how a bill becomes a law is reduced to a historically inspired myth.

As for the Republican consent since this year’s election to a corrosive campaign to overturn—or, failing that, delegitimize—a landslide election for a Democratic presidential candidate, little should need to be added right now.

But, of course, my point here is that what’s shocking one day becomes normalized or simply forgotten just a few years later…

One Thought on “Ungovernable

  1. Amy Hanauer on December 25, 2020 at 4:14 pm said:

    Thanks for this really smart, thoughtful commentary. I learned from it. I don’t know what we can do other than keep chugging away at the things we care about, but it’s really helpful to have someone back up and point these things out and connect some dots.

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