I’ve grown so used to dismissing Tom Friedman’s work for The New York Times that when he writes something genuinely good, it comes as a surprise. To wit, in his column for the Sunday paper, he aruges that our political system has devolved into a “vetocracy”—a system where “no one can aggregate enough power to make any important decisions at all.”
The culprits, according to Friedman, are polarization, broken institutional norms—in particular, filibuster abuse—the massive proliferation of special interests, and the growing importance of money in politics. The ultimate outcome of this, says Friedman, is governmental paralysis:
America’s collection of minority special-interest groups is now bigger, more mobilized and richer than ever, while all the mechanisms to enforce the will of the majority are weaker than ever. The effect of this is either legislative paralysis or suboptimal, Rube Goldberg-esque, patched-together-compromises, often made in response to crises with no due diligence. That is our vetocracy.
This dovetails with a problem that Friedman only alludes to:
[I]f you believe the fantasy that America’s economic success derives from having had a government that stayed out of the way, then gridlock and vetocracy are just fine with you. But if you have a proper understanding of American history — so you know that government played a vital role in generating growth by maintaining the rule of law, promulgating regulations that incentivize risk-taking and prevent recklessness, educating the work force, building infrastructure and funding scientific research — then a vetocracy becomes a very dangerous thing.
If there’s anything that defines the current political moment, it’s the fact that—of the two major parties—one has completely abandoned the American consensus that Friedman describes. In the mythology of the Republican Party, government has never played a part in the country’s growth or prosperity—the “free market” alone is responsible for the nation’s current prosperity. Not only does this run counter to the historical record—to say nothing of observable reality—but it has resulted in a world where one party refuses to accept a role for government in anything.
As Friedman (obliquely) points out, this is a recipe for disaster. The institutions of the United States aren’t built for one-party rule, and we can’t make progress on pressing issues—climate change, health care, aging infrastructure—without a mutual understanding between the two parties. Republicans don’t have to abandon their preference for small government or their skepticism for federal programs, but effective action requires the GOP to back away from its opposition to the public sector and reconsider the role of government in solving the nation’s problems.
Between Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the Republican Party is committed to a radical attack on the size and role of government. The Romney economic plan, which draws its ideas from Paul Ryan’s budget, would eliminate most non-defense discretionary spending and funnel the savings to tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Vital government functions like environmental regulation, scientific research, and poverty reduction would be sacrificed on the altar of small government. This isn’t a sustainable state of affairs. A world where government completely withdraws from the lives of ordinary Americans is one where we all but commit to a path of decline and disrepair.
If there’s anything that this country needs right now, it’s a responsible and functional Republican Party. I won't hold my breath.