Fukuyama and the Decay of American Institutions

For any European, it might take some time to grasp the importance of elections and appointments of judges in the U.S., especially to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the question of who fills the ranks of the supreme judicial instance in European democracies is quite important, it was never as highly politicized as it is in the U.S. The fuss surrounding certain court rulings (regardless of the level) frequently crossed the Atlantic and made the U.S. seem to be ruled through important court decisions rather than through legislative procedure.

According to Francis Fukuyama's recent essay "The Ties That Used to Bind: The Decay of American Political Institutions," this observation perfectly fits in the larger picture of the most important and imminent problems that haunt everyday American politics -- and, more importantly, its institutions. As Fukuyama puts it, one of the three most important problems is the fact that "judiciary and the legislature (including the roles played by the two major political parties) continue to play outsized roles in American government at the expense of Executive Branch bureaucracies." The predominance of courts in the everyday American decision-making process, regardless of the level -- local, state or federal -- clearly shows that the "regular" process of legislating through Congress and effectively implementing policies through the bureaucracy and executive branch (something Europe and most of the developed world would deem "regular") is somewhat dysfunctional.

Fukuyama finds the roots of this problem in a traditional American distrust of the government, which creates a self-propelling cycle: By estranging the enforcement from bureaucracy and handing it mainly to the judiciary, the system effectively ties up its own hands and, Fukuyama claims, becomes less accountable, and distrust grows. In comparison, "in a European parliamentary system, a new rule or regulation promulgated by a bureaucracy is subject to scrutiny and debate. ... In the United States, by contrast, policy is made piecemeal in a highly specialized and therefore non-transparent process by judges who are unelected and usually serve with lifetime tenure. In addition, if one party loses a legislative battle, it can continue the fight into the implementation stage through the courts." Fukuyama also blames exactly this mechanism for what happened in the case of the Affordable Care Act (also known as "Obamacare").

This system's failure to functionally serve the citizens brings Fukuyama to two other causes of legislative and executive weakness and, as he puts it, institutional decay. The second is that "the accretion of interest group and lobbying influences has distorted democratic processes and eroded the ability of the government to operate effectively." Fukuyama tries to assert that although "exchange of favors" between two parties has clear biological and evolutionary roots, it is deeply damaging to American democracy's functionality, alienating it further from the common people. However, although the U.S. might have a somewhat softer stance toward lobbying than other countries, and although the leverage of a average member of Congress greatly surpasses that of the average MP, it is hard to accept his argument of a "corrupted system." Other countries see probably the same amount of lobbying, maybe even in a worse form. Parliamentary democracy, trying to reconcile different and often conflicting interests, might even be more prone to corruption. On the other hand, that means there is a certain "free market" for lobbying, bringing the ultimate decision closer to the interests of the society as a whole.

The last problem, according to Fukuyama, is that because of the "ideological polarization in a federal governance structure, the American system of checks and balances, originally designed to prevent the emergence of too strong an executive authority, has become a vetocracy." "Vetocracy" is something that is definitely the hardest yet the most attractive problem to solve. Many solutions that have served the purposes of smaller countries -- such as proportionate representation or parliamentary democracy with fewer checks and balances -- might not work well in a country as large (and as diverse) as the U.S. It seems that some evidence exists showing "good government is going to be more prevalent in polities with populations between 5 and 9 million than in much larger jurisdictions." One solution that comes across many readers' minds is subsidiarity: delegating as much authority as possible to the local and state level. If European countries can effectively wield taxation, providing health care, and many other responsibilities, why can't American states?

Another vital part of the solution of "vetocracy" is to try to reorient the policy debate around outcomes -- graspable, concrete outcomes that will engage common people in the shaping of the country's policy.

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