Don Robinson: The United States of impasse

Last modified: Friday, November 28, 2014

ASHFIELD — It’s Thanksgiving, time to remember our manifold blessings, both personal and communal. We are grateful to occupy such a lovely place in God’s abundant creation, so bountiful, so forgiving.

We are thankful for faith and hope, ever renewing, that one day we will be able to break through our stale habits and old ways and find the energy, together, to imagine a life together that is truly new and bring it into being.

I am grateful for our flawed mid-term elections, even if I cannot help deploring the ritual of punditry that accompanied them.

Two years ago, Barack Obama dispatched Mitt Romney. Commentators found the GOP on the wrong side of every growing demographic group: Latinos, racial minorities generally, young people, single women. The Republicans, we were told, were doomed.

Now it is the Democrats’ turn to be the target of post-election gloom. The GOP has captured most of the state governorships and legislatures. With all the money that the Citizens United decision ensures them, Republicans will continue to dominate through this decade, and redistricting by GOP-dominated state governments after the 2020 census will secure a Republican lock on American politics at least until our grandchildren’s children grow old.

This kind of post-election analysis is so tedious. Better guidance comes from the late Sen. Howard Baker: “In politics, a week is an eternity.” We have a competitive two-party system. One of its blessings is that an opposition party stands ready to take over when the existing majority stumbles badly enough.

This brings me to a quite different reflection on the meaning of this year’s elections. Turnout this year, at 36.3 percent, was the second lowest in over 70 years. The New York Times in a post-election editorial traced the turnout to voters’ “apathy, anger and frustration” at the negative character of the campaign. Granted, the campaign this year was pretty depressing, but it is a mistake, I think, to attribute low turnout and the bad mood in American public life solely, or even primarily, to the negative character of the 2014 campaign.

The truly troubling thing about our politics is its ongoing state of paralysis. We cannot do much of anything. We all know the problems we need to tackle. We cannot put people to work despite the abundance of jobs that need doing. We cannot come to grips with climate change and our reliance on fossil fuels. We cannot fix immigration, or restore order and discipline to our financial system.

We stand before this agenda stupefied. Good ideas are produced, left and right, but our constitutional system of separated powers makes us unable to “form a government” and get to work on implementing them.

Only for brief moments in our history have we been able to act. Lincoln assumed dictatorial powers to crush the Confederate rebellion. Confronting a deep economic crisis, FDR moved boldly to enact the New Deal. In the early 1940s FDR again gathered the reins of a sprawling system into his own hands and built a war machine capable of crushing German aggression. LBJ, skillfully deploying the emotional energy generated by Kennedy’s assassination, broke the South’s stranglehold on Congress and led the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then pushed through the Great Society program, a quantum jump in the federal government’s ability to “promote the general welfare” (quoting the Constitution’s Preamble).

These brief, crisis-born moments are the exception, however. They show what we can accomplish when the separation of powers is effectively suspended.

It is wasteful and dangerous to wait for a crisis that will enable a strong leader to transcend the barriers of the system built in 1787-1788. We need to craft a thoughtful reform of our constitutional system, to make it capable of governing, strongly but accountably, in circumstances short of a full-fledged crisis.

Sometimes such a government would tend to the right; other times to the left. Either way, it would be able to act, and democracy would hold it accountable for the results.

The prospect of building a system capable of taking effective action almost terrifies us. We need to recover the boldness of those who built our present system in the first place. They lived in dangerous times, too, but they did not hesitate to replace the floundering system that fought the American Revolution but proved utterly inadequate to the challenge of nationhood. They built a new system.

We need to summon up their example. We need, as Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address, to disenthrall ourselves. Our constitutional system is broken. It is time to fix it.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at


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