In an 1814 letter to John Taylor, John Adams wrote that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” That may read today like an overstatement, but it is certainly true that our democracy finds itself facing a deep challenge: During my recent stint in the Obama administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget, it was clear to me that the country’s political polarization was growing worse—harming Washington’s ability to do the basic, necessary work of governing. If you need confirmation of this, look no further than the recent debt-limit debacle, which clearly showed that we are becoming two nations governed by a single Congress—and that paralyzing gridlock is the result.
So what to do? To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.
The Washington Post defends Peter Orszag article with a bit of spin
Peter Orszag’s New Republic article arguing that “we need less democracy” is getting a lot of attention, but mostly for the wrong reasons. “We need less democracy” is a good headline, but if you read the piece closely, that’s not actually what Orszag is arguing. Rather, he’s arguing that we need less Congress. And that’s a bit different.
Orszag is really worried about the way party polarization leads to “paralyzing gridlock” in our system. But that’s often because Congress actually isn’t that democratic. The filibuster foils majority rule and exacerbates the consequences of political polarization in the Senate, and the six-year election cycle and lack of proportional representation further insulate the chamber from democratic trends. Legislators also pulled toward party discipline and away from their voters by the desire to chair committees and secure campaign cash through the party’s fundraising apparatus. And as for whether Congress works this way because this is how the American people want it to work, a quick look at the legislative branch’s poll numbers will disabuse anyone if that notion.