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The Roots of American Dysfunction


As a rule, systems fascinate me. Technical systems, political systems, cultural systems–you name it. The country in which I live–the United States–makes for a particularly puzzling, sometimes aggravating system. In this case, “dysfunction” doesn’t mean the system is bad, but it does point to a system that is not functioning as well as it could.

To discuss the American system–by which I mean its interlocking social, political, economic, and religious components–requires some history. To begin at the beginning would require going back to the birth of the universe, or at least the beginnings of human settlement, and that could fill innumerable books, so I will instead handwave a lot of that and start roughly to the birth of the United States as a political entity: the late 18th century.

The Virtues of Rebellion

That the United States was born out of rebellion against the British Crown is fundamental to our identity as Americans. In some ways, it is perhaps too fundamental. Rebellion against people and systems viewed as oppressive occurs almost reflexively, but what is considered “oppressive” is defined mainly by the privileged majority: that is, white men. Without fully delineating a hierarchy of privilege, it is sufficient to say that what can be acceptably rebelled against is whatever is thought to trample upon those who consider themselves quintessentially American. It has little to do with any genuine oppression that’s occurring (or has occurred in the past), but rather draws on certain romanticism about this country’s history and what its best aspects were. Men surviving against all odds on the frontier, alone and powerful–that is one of the key images of American rebellion. Not too far from that is romanticism (and even apologism) for the Confederacy. The rise and fall of the Confederacy is seen in a favorable light by a great many Americans, due to a complex of factors that include quite repugnant racism, but also an appreciation for the power and value of rebellion against greater authorities. As we see the foundation of our country as a noble, moral rebellion against tyranny, so must we view other rebellions in our history of powerful white men against more powerful white men as objects of romantic heritage. This mindset, taken to such an extreme, is poisonous. Rebellion against particular authorities is viewed as praiseworthy even when it’s pointless, and even when it’s hateful.

Today, we see this in right-wing political movements that claim government power grabs and overreaches are oppressing typical Americans. Government is involved in too much, is too powerful, is too unaccountable. While government abuses of power are a legitimate concern, the specific concerns expressed are often completely senseless: the government is going to take everyone’s guns, the government is going to make you teach your children anti-Christian values, the government is going to throw you in prison because you refused to buy health insurance. Conspiracy theories abound, and all stem from this obsession with powerful, faceless authorities that must be rebelled against. The recent rise in this sort of paranoia among a large set of the population may be an aberration, but the shared cultural history that venerates virtually mindless reactionary rebellion is not at all new.

In the long term, this becomes destructive. A lack of trust in our institutions actively degrades them. What once functioned eventually no longer functions at all. It is, of course, important to stand up for justice, and to stand against tyranny and oppression, but to have no faith in political institutions’ ability to solve problems veers into self-fulfilling prophecy.

Racism Never Ends

It can be difficult to absorb the extent to which racism informs our history and culture, even for those willing to deeply examine the issue. The culture of the antebellum South relied extensively on a de facto caste system enabled by slavery: black slaves were the lowest of the low, with poor whites a step above them, then on up the (white) income/wealth ladder to the rich plantation owners. Social order was kept by maintaining an impoverished underclass literally owned (and treated) as property. Industries in the North benefited tremendously from Southern slave labor as a source of raw materials for production–cotton for textile mills, most notably. While racism as a means of social order was not inculcated as extensively in the North–it was simply not necessary, due to much smaller black populations–by no means were Northern states immune to the ills of institutionalized racism. Racist ideas about black people were prevalent all over the country. Stereotypes about their appearance, behavior, and supposed criminal tendencies abounded.

Today, it is commonly believed that slavery would have naturally ended in the South as it was economically unviable. In fact, the opposite was true: slavery was efficient and profitable, and becoming ever more so with industrial advances that extracted more productivity out of slaves. If not for the sequence of events that plunged the country into war and devastated the South, it is unclear when slavery would have ended within the US’ borders. With the lack of government support for newly-freed slaves after the Civil War, many entered into sharecropping arrangements that left plantation owners in a position not altogether different from their prior role as slavemasters.

Those who chose to seek new lives in Northern cities were often met with a cold, even violent reception. Though the North did not enact extensive Black Codes like the South, segregation and police abuses were commonplace. Lynchings were rarer than in the South but certainly not unheard of in Northern states. Employment discrimination ran rampant as there were no laws protecting black workers. Black people technically had the right to vote, but poll taxes often prevented them. Discriminatory mortgage practices–even at the federal level–kept black people from owning their homes, or owning homes in desirable areas, which had the effect of limiting their wealth. Most of these practices did not begin to erode until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Even beyond that time, racist practices continued in much of the country. Police abuses of black residents are still an everyday occurrence, and as much as various forms of racial discrimination are illegal, enforcement is poor. The Civil War ended 150 years ago, but racism that led to it endures.

Racism is often regarded as a sideshow in American history–an ugly part of our past that we’ve overcome because we outlawed slavery and had a Civil Rights Movement. In truth, however, what we’ve seen is the painfully slow dismantling of a feature deeply ingrained in our culture and institutions. It is too often believed that laws alone can eliminate racism, because if that were true it would represent a quick fix. But there is no quick fix for something so inherent to our history, our way of life, and our culture.

An Ancient Government

At the time of the founding of the United States, none of its European peers were functioning democratic republics. It’s fair to say that there were no precise templates to use in the design of our federal government–and in fact, the first attempt (the Articles of Confederation) failed. Our current government structure takes its inspiration both from the Roman Republic and the 18th century form of the British government. In the push and pull between federalism and anti-federalism–essentially, the choice between a weak central government and a powerful one–many compromises were struck. The Constitution, first and foremost, was made difficult to modify. The three branches of our government were also empowered to check each other’s behavior. In theory, no one branch could run amok because the other two would be able to stop it. Likewise, amending the Constitution requires enough cooperation between disparate parts of the government (or a large number of states) such that radically altering it could only be done with overwhelming political support. This has kept the basic form of our government extremely stable and quite consistent, but it has formed bad habits and provided significant impediments to improving government functions.

In retrospect, the constitutional rigidity of our government is probably excessive. Because it is so hard to change the Constitution directly, government powers have frequently been invented out of whole cloth. Even the rules of Congress are governed less by written law and more by custom, which means any consistency in function is guaranteed only so long as people agree to follow the custom. Presidential power is vastly expanded from any explicit Constitutional role; likewise, the ability of the Supreme Court to review Congress’ laws and strike them down in whole or in part is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, but is a role that the Court interpreted itself to possess. Ironically, Americans sometimes criticize the British for lacking a written constitution, yet much of what we expect from our government today has no explicit Constitutional basis. Instead, many government functions stem from asserted powers that were, for whatever reason, not curtailed by other branches. We began with three branches of roughly equal power, but now we have two very powerful branches–the executive and the judiciary–and a legislative branch whose efficacy depends on the whims of its members. This is particularly troublesome because a well-functioning Congress is essential to the operation of our government. For lack of a President, the numerous agencies under the executive have enough tradition and institutional inertia behind them that they could continue more or less normal operations indefinitely, at least until the event of a major crisis requiring a top-level decision. Without a Supreme Court, the rulings of federal (or state) courts would simply stand, eventually causing a bizarre patchwork of laws (at least, more than we have already) but not seriously undermining government functions as a whole. But without a well-oiled Congress, budgets do not get passed, government activities do not get funded, and the entire machinery of the federal government grinds to a halt. On paper, the legislature is perhaps the most powerful branch–certainly, it has profound potential for harm when it functions poorly, and many issues simply cannot be addressed without Congressional action. But it can also easily be sidelined via partisan gridlock, because it has few safeguards to ensure its proper operation.

Other parliamentary systems address this through a variety of means, but most notably, they have multiple healthy parties (more than two), they often vest executive power in the head of the parliament, but also have the ability to dissolve that parliament and form a new government when events have reached an insurmountable impasse. Most of these systems arose well after the United States government was formed, so it’s understandable that we didn’t foresee such complications. Yet, at this point, with so many examples to choose from, we seem to have little interest in reforming the way our government, and the legislature in particular, does business. This lack of any desire to alter the workings of our government only ensures more of the same, which means slow progress on any front, when there is progress at all.

My suspicion is that this reluctance to change our government stems from the same mythmaking that surrounds our rebellion against Great Britain: romanticizing the past and wishing to preserve it in the present without acknowledging that our vision of the past is itself a fantasy. This constrains us from entertaining more options, and blinds us to the fact that what we believe has gone unchanged has actually changed dramatically. Living in denial prevents us from accepting–and thus confronting, changing–reality.

I’m not saying it’s all doom and gloom, nor would I suggest that this is the entire picture. The role of religion was left completely out of this piece, and better deserves an article of its own, given its importance in informing our history, national myths, and policy outcomes. The factors described here, however, go a long way toward outlining what makes our culture what it is, and why we have so much difficulty moving forward. We refuse to engage honestly and intelligently with our past, instead falling back on comfortable national myths and the belief that our worst habits are all behind us. At the same time, we fail to see the true threats to our stability, such as bad economic policy and racial strife, instead making a boogeyman out of the government on the basis of hyperbole and outlandish conspiracies.

None of these issues will be easy to address, but understanding what they are and why they exist is an essential first step.