Readers of the world financial press over the past year fearfully followed the United States’ drift toward the fiscal cliff. The cliff – a federal tax hike and spending reduction created by the 2011 Budget Control act as part of a bipartisan compromise on raising the debt ceiling and designed to force a compromise on fiscal policy – was necessary because Democratic President Barack Obama proved unable to find common ground with the Republican-majority Congress. The situation seriously damaged the credibility of the president and faith in the ability of the government to make and carry out decisions.
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The world's biggest democracy is in an ever-worsening crisis that expresses itself in prolonged political debates and policy paralysis. The term “gridlock” is on everyone’s lips and is considered to be one of the central factors in the weakening of American democracy. Modern political theory, experts say, has focused too much on preventing the tyranny of the state and too little on how the state can use force and coercion when necessary.
One of the important signs of democracy is the ability to act, says Jane Mansbridge, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and one of the most important political theorists in the U.S. A democracy that struggles to implement decisions loses legitimacy and can become unstable, she says. In other words, American political scientists feel the system of checks and balances in their country is out of control and now generating mostly barriers.
The situation in Washington serves conservatives, of course, since it prevents the Democratic administration from advancing the long list of social and economic changes it is pushing. The Republicans are imposing their views by using decision-making processes that empower the minority. Such processes were created to protect the expression of dissenting opinions but are being used to prevent the president from getting things done. As a result, the critics claim, American policy-making in recent years has been stilted and indecisive. In the current crisis, this is creating a very dangerous reality.
Given the seriousness of the situation, the American Society for Public Administration has established a task force to deal with the issue of gridlock. The team, made up of ten political scientists from the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, Norway and Israel, examined how democracies can improve their ability to make and implement decisions. Their conclusions may give Israeli readers some satisfaction: First, the days when a presidential system of government was seen as more decisive than a parliamentary one are over; and second, the democratic world is looking for a system with more balances and less checks.
The task force criticized the division of governing power between the two houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, in the U.S., and approvingly cited the examples of democracies with a single house of parliament, such as Israel’s Knesset.
The idea of proportional democracy, of the kind we have in Israel, is also back in fashion. Proportional representation is now viewed as a fair form of government that gives voice to all segments of society and requires negotiations between various groups to reach compromise. Negotiations and compromise, even when reached in back rooms with a certain lack of transparency, received greater understanding from the American theoreticians.
Politics is the belief in negotiation and compromise, and politicians must be allowed greater room to maneuver to be able reach the consensus required for decision-making and rapid action. This is the message of the task force.
Israeli readers will no doubt be confused. It seems we are living in an ideal democracy – with the small defect of a too-low electoral threshold for the Knesset. After all, the task force described our government: A parliamentary system with proportional representation, a single legislature and a mix of public and secret negotiations, compromises and agreements.
But "jams" are also common here and result largely from the same issues the task force cited as hamstringing the executive in presidential regimes. One issue is ideological extremism – caused by primary elections. Primaries push elected officials to appeal to small and extreme segments of the public and require the financial support of extremist groups. The winner is conservatism: the avoidance of decisions with high political prices and deferral to the status quo.
The good news is that we should not rush to change the Israeli political system. Those who dream of a presidential system can look to the U.S. and see that salvation will not come from there. The less good news is that growing extremism, efforts to curry favor with the public – and particularly the media – and an unwillingness to sacrifice today for the benefit of tomorrow, are not the products any one form of government. They are the diseases of a societal consciousness based on consumerism and hedonism and of lack of encouragement and valuation of people who invest in the future.
Institutional reforms can moderate the occurrence of jams, but stopping the trend toward gridlock will require a change in the political debate and shifting focus from the present to an intergenerational timeframe. For this, we do not need knowledgeable theoreticians but brave leaders – and there are not many of those today.
Professor Yuli Tamir is the president of Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.