The day the American political system broke

I've never really been a fan of the way our government is structured. It has always seemed to me that the Founding Fathers, fearful of tyranny, deliberately designed a system that guarantees gridlock. In order to overcome that possibility, you have to have people in government who are willing to reach across the aisle and work with the other side for the good of the nation.

In a Westminster-style parliamentary system, on the other hand, there is no such requirement. When the majority legislative party forms the executive, they can (theoretically, anyway) pass whatever legislation is necessary and nominate and confirm judges as they see fit. While this is not always the case, particularly in times of coalition government, it has been so often enough, particularly in Britain and in many nations of the Commonwealth.

Today, it's beginning to look like we should have kept the Westminster system, and like the GOP majority thinks that we did. With eleven months left in office for President Obama, the GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a statement that there would be no consideration of nominees for the vacant Supreme Court seat left by the death of Antonin Scalia until after Inauguration Day. This is despite the clear constitutional requirement that the President shall nominate a candidate to fill the vacancy, and the Senate shall consider the nominee and hold a confirmation vote.

To put it another way, the legislative branch has overstepped its bounds and is refusing to carry out its constitutional duty, apparently for no other reason than they do not like the current President. The effect of this is to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of a democratically elected President of the United States. It also places the political agenda of the Senate majority ahead of the Constitution of the United States, which they claim to honor--a claim that is now clearly a lie.

In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. The increasing political division in the United States since the 2000 election, which had to be decided by a Supreme Court decision, has been pointing towards this for some time. And let us be clear--the blame for this is not shared equally by both parties. Ever since the election of Barack Obama, the Republican Party has been very clear that it would attempt to obstruct and thwart this President at every turn, regardless of what he proposed. Time and time again, they have subtly encouraged those who would question this President's patriotism, his religion, and even his citizenship. While there is a time-honored tradition of each party attempting to thwart the political agenda of the other, it has never before taken such a clear step towards constitutional crisis. The last time that conflict between two branches of government resulted in a crisis of this magnitude was likely the Roosevelt administration's threat to pack the Supreme Court in order to carry forward the New Deal agenda. But even then, it was resolved without causing serious damage to our constitutional system.

Today, however, the damage is serious indeed. The Senate majority has abandoned all pretense of constitutional procedure and legal precedent, for there is no precedent for simply refusing to hold a confirmation hearing for the duration of an incumbent president's term. To the best of my knowledge, there is no clear path forward from this point. The President will nominate; the Senate will ignore the nomination, and most likely the President will make a recess appointment which the congressional GOP will then claim (incorrectly) is an abuse of his constitutional authority.

If this were any other issue, the Supreme Court would eventually be called on to rule on the constitutionality of both the Senate's refusal to act and the President's recess appointment of a justice. But this is a Supreme Court which is now evenly tied between the conservative and liberal wings. It seems unlikely that they would be able to issue a ruling with a 4-4 split. And unless I miss my guess, the Democrats in the Senate will do everything in their power to stop the GOP from doing so much as passing a resolution to refill the toilet paper in the restrooms until they're able to move forward with confirmation hearings, which means that no business whatsoever will be transacted for the duration of this Congress.

And there you have it--absolute and unbreakable gridlock. Our political system has finally broken. And it gets worse. As I write this, the Nevada Republican caucuses are underway, and there are multiple reports of multiple voting, voting without ID, and caucus staffers openly wearing campaign T-shirts and hats for Donald Trump, a man who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, who has openly condoned violence, and who at best is America's Silvio Berlusconi, at worst our Mussolini. It is difficult to look at the overall situation right now and say that this is our finest hour. It is, if anything, our worst.

Some may say I'm being unreasonably pessimistic. Am I? Democracy really only works when you have an educated and informed electorate. Today, much of the right wing espouses beliefs that are largely divorced from reality, which is not surprising when you get most of your news from talk radio (as Scalia himself said he did). It seems that increasingly, we have an undereducated and misinformed electorate. In circumstances like these, it's not surprising that people gravitate towards candidates and politicians who tell them what they want to hear.

Unfortunately, the historical precedents for this are uniformly bad. Nationalistic, xenophobic, reactionary, violence-condoning movements do not tend to lead to an increase in democracy and human rights. Rather the opposite.

To close out this cheery little post-mortem, I'd like to leave you with a thought. In 1940, with German troops overrunning France, the members of the National Assembly met for the last time in the resort town of Vichy. There, they ratified the surrender of French forces, voted dictatorial powers to Marshal Henri Petain, and then, as their last act, voted themselves out of existence. It was all done very officially and with perfect parliamentary form.

That didn't make it legitimate. And someday, historians may well look back at the United States in 2016, and say exactly the same thing.