No, 'the System' Is Not Broken

Not getting what you want from the government isn't a sign of failure.


Credit: mandamonium / photo on flickr

If there is anything presidential candidates agree on this year, it's that our government and politics are not functioning to fulfill the desires of the American people. Donald Trump proclaims that "our system is broken." 

The phrase could be used by almost anyone in the race. "Government in Washington is dysfunctional," says Mike Huckabee. Bernie Sanders believes "the American political system has been totally corrupted." Joe Biden sounded like a candidate the other day when he lamented the "dysfunction in Washington." 

The premise is that most Americans want one thing and our leaders in Washington keep giving them something entirely different. Ted Cruz insists his ideas are what most Americans favor. "It's only in Washington, D.C., that those are considered radical or extreme," he says. Sanders says the people "have serious doubts about how much their vote actually matters." 

If only the politicians would listen to the people and respond to their wishes. If only democracy operated so public preferences become public policy. If only our interests weren't continually shortchanged by operational misfires. 

Actually, the American government does a good job responding to the desires of the electorate. Sanders, Cruz and many citizens assume they don't get their way because the system fails. 

But sometimes they don't get their way because most people don't agree with them. Sometimes they don't get their way because it collides with constitutional principles. Sometimes they get their way, but what they want is contradictory and—what's the word I'm looking for?—dysfunctional. 

Cruz insists the great majority of Americans share the values he upholds: "live within your means, don't bankrupt our kids and grandkids, follow the Constitution." To which I can only say: Ha. Ha. Ha. 

American politicians don't refuse to live within our means because they are congenital spendthrifts. They do it because the citizens want more things from their government than they are willing to pay for. 

A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center asked about various federal outlays and found that nearly every one of them is very popular. "For 18 of 19 programs tested, majorities want either to increase spending or maintain it at current levels," reported Pew. The sole exception was foreign aid—which accounts for about 1 percent of the federal budget. 

Living within our means suggests we should pay taxes in an amount sufficient to cover all these outlays—something we have not done in a long time. This year, the federal government will spend about $425 billion more than it takes in. 

We could close the deficit by cutting spending, which most people don't want to do. Or we could close it by raising taxes, which they also oppose. In a Gallup poll this year, only 4 percent of Americans favored an increase in federal income taxes. The public would rather run large deficits than do what is required to prevent them. 

Sanders favors higher tax rates on the rich. When asked whether 90 percent would be too high, his answer was "no." The problem is that this is a minority view. The top rate today is 39.6 percent. A 2012 poll commissioned by the political website The Hill asked people what they thought the top rate should be. It reported that "75 percent said the right level for top earners was 30 percent or below." The rich get off easy? Blame the non-rich. 

The people, granted, don't always get the last word. Cruz thinks something is wrong when the Supreme Court can make same-sex marriage legal everywhere. Sanders thinks something is wrong when the Supreme Court can empower the Koch brothers to squander millions on elections. 

But deciding how to interpret the Constitution has been the responsibility of the Supreme Court for more than 200 years. If the justices rule against your side, that doesn't mean the system is broken or that democracy has been violated. The Constitution was meant to put some issues beyond the reach of majorities. 

The justices, keep in mind, are appointed by elected presidents and confirmed by elected senators. Even at the Supreme Court, the will of the people plays a major role over time. 

The candidates would like voters to think that anytime things don't go as they want, it's because someone or something failed the voters. That's usually not the case. 

In a constitutional democracy, everyone sometimes is fated to lose. Being a sore loser? That's optional. 

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.