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No cure for the diseases of American democracy?  

The American political system is a mess, but don’t expect that introducing reform and changing how the government is structured will cure all the diseases of American democracy. There is no magic bullet. No simple panacea.

It would be difficult to argue that things are going well in Washington today. Every week, it seems, a new report comes out of Washington that raises questions about the behavior of our government, be it the near shut down of the Department of Homeland Security or House Speaker Boehner’s controversial invitation to the Israeli prime minister to address Congress or the resignation of Rep. Aaron Schock, who stepped aside after a spate of media stories appeared raising questions about the Downton Abbey-styled décor in his office.

Certainly, the American public believes things are not going well. Surveys by the Pew Research Center, Gallup, and others have long noted the public’s dissatisfaction with American government, especially Congress. In February, the Rasmussen Poll found that only 16% of Americans believe that Congress is doing a good job. The ironic aspect of the poll is that the results were reported in the media as a positive sign, for this was the best approval rating of Congress since 2010. Apparently, 16% is the new good.

What can be done? An endless number of proposals have been put forward by political reformers, editorial writers, and bloggers on how to fix American politics. One of the major targets is strengthening campaign finance rules. There may be no issue that is perceived as more damaging to American politics by many than the Citizens United decision, which opened the spigot to unlimited spending in elections by corporations, unions, and other associations.

Obama Health Care Speech to Joint Session of Congress. Lawrence Jackson (whitehouse.gov. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Obama Health Care Speech to Joint Session of Congress. Lawrence Jackson (whitehouse.gov. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, campaign finance is but one problem targeted by reformers. Many reformers focus on the polarization in American politics, advocating for changes that would reduce polarization by limiting the power of political parties or expanding the electorate. Conversely, others argue that polarization can be reduced by actually strengthening party organizations or by placing limitations on individual campaign contributors, who tend to be more ideologically extreme.

Rather than campaign finance and polarization, others focus on making changes within Congress to reduce gridlock, including placing presidential nominations on a fast track, ending the filibuster, and docking members’ pay if they do not pass the budget on time. A recent article in the Washington Monthly called for strengthening Congress’s capacity as a means for it to counter the influences of corporate money and excessive partisans.

While the American political system is clearly a mess, we should be as skeptical of reform proposals as we are with the current status quo.

One reason to be skeptical is that reforms do not always deliver what they promise. In some cases, the proposed reform is simply not going to attain the goals touted by their evangelical supporters. Take term limits for example. At times advocates argue that term limits will make legislators more attentive to the voters in their districts, while at other times they argue that term limits will make legislators less beholden to local interest and thus better able to address national problems. You can’t have both. Or take campaign finance reform. It seems like the flow of money to campaigns is like a sieve: once you plug one hole, the money will find another in which to flow.

The reason for skepticism, though, goes beyond questioning whether reforms will work. One also has to be skeptical because no one particular political structure is able to attain everything that people want out of a democracy. The reason for this is simple: what we want is conflicting. We want a government that works efficiently to solve problems, yet we also want to make sure that minority views get considered. We want to limit the involvement of money in election campaigns, yet we also want greater voter turnout and better informed voters. Or as in the case of term limits, we want legislators to pay attention to their voters back home, but we also want them address broad social problems.

This is not to say that the problems in our political system are not real and significant. Certainly, excessive corporate money in politics means that some voices are being better heard than others, which goes against the democratic ideal of fair representation. And clearly, a government that is so mired in political polarization and gridlock is one that cannot address the nation’s most pressing problems.

Instead, what it is saying is that we shouldn’t expect that introducing reform will automatically cure all of America’s ills. Even the best designed law to limit money in politics can also reduce voter awareness and turnout, limit expression, and in some cases actually dampen electoral competition rather than improve it. Reforms to increase government efficiency may limit the ability of political minorities to have a say in our laws. Even something like strengthening Congress’s capacity, which may seem a simple solution, can have contradictory effects. While it may improve Congress’s ability to challenge corporate money, it will also likely enhance Congress’s ability to challenge the White House, which may mean more conflict and a less efficient government.

This doesn’t mean we should give up on reform. Rather it means we need to look critically at reform proposals before jumping on a bandwagon in support. Even more important, it means we need to weigh the benefits of proposed reforms against the costs, because there always will be some.

Heading image: United States Capitol. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.