American democracy inaction

Feb. 18, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

The future of the Supreme Court was already a major factor in the 2016 presidential election. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia last Saturday only made it more salient. With the barrage of commentary that has followed, reactions from both ends of the ideological spectrum revealed the extent to which our system of government is broken.

American politics as-we-used-to-know-it is on fire. The recent rise of Donald Trump has burned conventional norms to ashes, but the fire has been burning long before Trump entered into the fray. The election of our first black president eight years ago set off some sparks, and the subsequent birth of the Tea Party fanned them into flames. In eight years, both sides have taken turns stoking the embers, and Scalia’s death seems to have doused the conflagration with enough gasoline to ensure that it won’t be put out anytime soon.

Gone are the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill — the days when divided government could still govern. However, today’s dysfunction is not the fault of President Obama or of the Republicans in Congress. It’s the fault of our national mindset — the mindset that insists that compromise is a vice and rigidity (for the sake of ideological purity) a virtue.

Masking preference for an ideologically-preferred outcome with a self-proclaimed desire for adherence to the intentions of the Constitution is simply hypocritical. Republicans do it when they decry President Obama’s “executive overreach,” and Democrats are doing it now as they berate the Senate Republicans for not letting Obama fill the new vacancy on the Supreme Court.

The American public is divided on whether or not the Senate should vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee or wait for the next administration, but this difference in opinion has little to do with how people interpret the Constitution and almost everything to do with people’s party identification. (Arguments that the Senate is undermining Obama’s authority as he is the current elected president ignore the reality that each and every Republican senator was also elected and given the authority to do just that.)

Should the parties have been switched — a Republican executive with a Democratic Congress — would we not expect to see the same methods being employed? President Romney wouldn’t shy away from using executive orders to push through conservative policies that the Democrats in Congress routinely oppose. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would certainly want his fellow Democrats to block the president from tipping the Supreme Court in a conservative direction when there remains a chance that a Democrat could be elected in a few months.

When divided government is unwilling to work together, our government’s system of checks and balances leads to gridlock. The opposing sides must then play “constitutional hardball” in order to push their goals. Their actions may work or they may backfire, but in the end it’s all just strategy. Neither side has a stronger claim to Constitutional righteousness.

No one wants to take the first step toward putting out the fire, so we all sit by and watch it burn, pointing fingers at the other side for not doing anything to fix it. The Senate, the White House and now the Supreme Court will all be at stake in November. Both parties earnestly look forward to overcoming the gridlock of our divided government — not through an increase in cooperativeness — but only insomuch as each hopes that their side will control most, if not all, branches come 2017.


Contact Ruairi Arrieta-Kenna at [email protected]


Ruairí Alfredo Arrieta-Kenna (BA Political Science '18) was a columnist for the Stanford Daily.

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