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The Blame for the Current Government Crisis: Not the Answer You Expected

American exceptionalism, for being an abstract idea, is a real aspect of American politics. Especially among those on the right -- see, e.g., Sarah Palin -- there is a belief that we are a blessed, unique nation (note the underlying theological tones). Part and parcel of American exceptionalism is a genuflection to the Founding Fathers, and their creation: the United States Constitution.

But what if we (the Founding Fathers) have written the seeds of our destruction into our founding document? There is a very real chance that the presidential democracy created by the Constitution may be our downfall if the government ceases to function as envisioned by the Constitution. Then there will be a "regime change"; that is, the collapse of our political system set in place by that document.

I do not mean to cry wolf, but the current government shutdown and looming debt ceiling crisis may be the first crack in the wall that means our foundation -- the Constitution -- is crumbling. Consider the following: Yale's Juan Linz in a classic 1990 essay posited that presidential democracies like ours, as opposed to parliamentary democracies (the United Kingdom is usually cited as Exhibit A), are more likely to end up as failed states, more prone to dictatorship and military coups. As Linz stated:

. . . the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States . . . . Aside from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continutity under presidential government -- but Chilean government broke down in the 1970s.

That "breakdown" in Chile would be the dictatorship of General Pinochet.

But this is not simply based on Linz's theorizing. It has been demonstrated as an empirical fact:

Yes, we have found out that presidential systems are more vulnerable to moving toward non-democratic solutions. Parliamentary systems have been adjusting by themselves. If the government is not doing whatever the population wants in a parliamentary system, then the government is going to fall. In a presidential system, this really does not exist. This is something that empirically has been demonstrated. The likelihood of survival of democracy is much greater in parliamentary systems than presidential systems. The United States obviously is the big exception to that.

  Why is this? Linz cogently explains:

But what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined "I think if we keep saying: 'We wanted to defund it, we fought for that, now we're going to compromise on this?'," Paul says, "I know we don't want to be here, but we're gonna win this, I think."alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically.

This is precisely the problem we are seeing now. It is fair to say that the GOP has never accepted Obama as legitimate -- he's Kenyan, socialist so on and so forth -- and now the GOP has forced a government shutdown over a law (Obamacare) they consider illegitimate.

We have the Speaker of House (Boehner) telling his partisans they are "locked in an epic battle" and to "hang tough." Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is saying things like: "I think if we keep saying: 'We wanted to defund it, we fought for that, now we're going to compromise on this?' I know we don't want to be here, but we're gonna win this, I think." Tea party congressman Ted Yoho -- the guy who famously said Obamacare's tax on tanning beds was racist against Whites because they primarily use tanning beds -- uses this rhetoric: "You're seeing the tremor before the tsunami here. I'm not going to raise the debt ceiling." Never mind Ted Cruz's angry rhetoric.

The executive and legislative branches are locked in an "epic battle" and the judiciary cannot solve the problem (because it's a "political question," in the legal jargon). Eventually, I think the Republicans will fold and this too shall pass. But the dead-enders of the tea party may not let that happen. Make no mistake, if the United States fails to raise the debt ceiling, the consequences will be disastrous. This is serious test of the Constitution. It may not be up to the task.


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