David Runciman provides a British perspective in a wonderful article in the London Review of Books with the engaging title: How Can It Work? He begins by reminding us that in the eyes of the world our country was always viewed as an implausible contrivance.
Runciman grants that the US has generated the successes that would normally be associated with a successful form of government, but suggests that its politics is too complicated to ever be able to understand, and thus one can never feel comfortable about its future.
Runciman, as do so many others, accords Tocqueville the prize for producing the greatest insight into how the US system actually functions. Tocqueville toured the country in 1831 as a young man.
However, during his travels he concluded that the frenetic activity that surrounded him was deceptive in that it suggested it was incoherent and aimless. He described an overlaying opacity that shielded one from a view of activities occurring in depth.
"He spotted the irony that it’s the openness of democracy that produces the opacity, because the excess of surface activity makes it hard to know what’s really going on....In a vibrant democracy the dissent, the noise, the anger, the incompetence are all readily apparent, yet out of this, over time, come stability and progress."
R. Shep Melnick provides insight into the process by which order seems to occasionally emerge from what is an apparently disorderly system. His article, The Gridlock Illusion, appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.
Our system of government was designed to make legislating difficult.
Melnick addresses the "opacity" that Tocqueville referred to in arguing that the congressional contentions and discord at the national level block from our view the full suite of actions and legislative experiments being performed at other levels.
"Critics of the Constitution overlook the fact that by creating multiple ‘veto points,’ our political system simultaneously creates multiple points of access for policy entrepreneurs and claimants. Every ‘veto point’ that can be used to block action is also an ‘opportunity point’ that can be used to initiate or augment government activity."
For examples of how incremental activities can lead to broad policy positions he describes how a combination of court rulings, state and local legislation, and interactions between state, local and federal agencies can create policies and programs.
"To take another example, how did Congress manage to pass controversial legislation guaranteeing every disabled student a ‘free appropriate public education,’ complete with an ‘individualized education plan,’ provision of ‘related services,’ and a promise that each student would be placed in the ‘least restrictive environment’? The answer is that the courts acted first, suggesting (rather obliquely) that students with disabilities might have a constitutional right to an adequate education. This forced state governments to spend much more on special education, which led them to demand that the federal government provide the money needed to comply with this federal mandate, which led Congress to provide both more money and more federal regulation, which led to more litigation and more federal requirements, which led to state demands for even more money, and so on. This is a vivid illustration of how separation of powers and federalism can produce not gridlock, but a game of institutional leapfrog that results in a steady expansion of government programs."
Although the federal government has not been able to produce any legislation that is directed at the carbon management problem associated with global warming, that does not mean that no progress is being made.
"More important, the Supreme Court has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases. In response, the EPA has issued new rules that limit carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources. This is just the beginning of its regulatory efforts. Given the structure of the Clean Air Act, it is unlikely that this will be a particularly effective or efficient form of regulation. But the worse the EPA proposal, the stronger the incentives for congressional action. After all, if Congress fails to act, the EPA’s flawed plan will go into effect."
Melnick’s discussion provides insight into how government policy has evolved in the past, and it explains why we can have some hope that progress will continue to be made in the future. But the past is not prologue to the future. And that brings us back to Runciman’s concern for our country.
While Melnick has provided some substance to Tocqueville’s claim that there is more going on than is apparent, it does not allow one to conclude that order will necessarily emerge from chaos when necessary. This belief that "things are not as bad as they seem" implies a faith in the workings of our democracy. This leads Runciman to pose a question.
Faith alone does not guarantee salvation.
Runciman points out that the historical record actually provides little comfort.
He suggests that more recent history may suggest a country that has grown more complacent and less resilient.
Runciman does not claim to know the answer to that question, and he warns us to not believe that anyone else knows.
While faith cannot be depended upon; despair definitely provides no help. We will just have to persevere and keep trying.