It’s a bleak portrait that George Packer presents of the United States (p20), crippled to the point of standstill, apparently, by its own constitution, a text which it has offered to the world for so long as the blueprint for governing a democracy. As both Packer and Jacob Kierkegaard argue (p22), the wreckage in Washington is, in one sense, a narrower problem than it might seem. The repeated gerrymandering of districts in the House of Representatives, now calculated by computer, means that a minority can hold the entire legislative process to ransom. In what Packer calls “mutinous irrationality,” a bloc of House Republicans have now thrown up a barricade with themselves on one side, and every piece of legislation that the President or other members of Congress might want to pass on the other. Even those who argue that there should be no modern reinterpretation of the constitution cannot say that this is what the Founding Fathers intended.
Packer, however, drives home the point that for Republicans this may be the last roll of the dice. The parties’ prospects have swung around in a generation, from the point when it seemed as if Democrat support would survive only in a few coastal pockets. Democrat presidential candidates have won a majority of the popular vote in five of the last six elections, he points out. Unless the Republican Party radically reinvents itself, demographic changes mean that America’s future is Democrat, he argues.
Maybe. But that future is the other side of the barricades. The rift between people with opposing views of how to solve America’s problems now goes so deep that it has entirely changed politics. It isn’t a disagreement in views of which policy is better; it is a clash of beliefs about values and of visions of the future, in which each side believes the other will destroy the country. Of course, it’s always easy to sit in a parliamentary democracy in Europe and to mistake the constitutionally-intended tension between the White House and Capitol Hill for a national crisis. But this time, real breakdown is far closer. I’m not one of those disappointed in President Barack Obama; it’s remarkable that he has achieved what he has given what amounts to a civil war within the US institutions of government.
It’s a long step from the rage of Washington to the grumblings of Whitehall. The acrid comedy of Yes, Minister sprang from that centuries-old joke of the servant cleverer than the master—usually. The series has been a national treasure of apparently endless longevity given that there was still essential faith that ministers and mandarins, in real life, were broadly honest, competent and doing their best. But the joke now falls flat; real anger is rising as people ask whether Britain’s government is fit for purpose—whether ministers and civil servants are motivated or equipped to make the right decisions and whether they are accountable if they fail. Damian McBride, Peter Riddell, John Kerr and Robin Butler (in, it should be said, entirely different styles), argue the case for reform.