The intent of this design was to create a system that has one foot on the brake and one foot on the accelerator at all times, ensuring that nothing could pass into law without a powerful national consensus. Even with this inefficient and downright messy system, we managed to come through a great Civil War, where the basic premise of a federal government was tested through conflict. Indeed, we have thus far been able to meet centuries of obstacles by adapting our government structure with constitutional amendments and Supreme Court decisions just as the Founding Fathers hoped we would.
So we have big, difficult problems and highly developed external forces that further constrain our government’s ability to address those problems. Americans are wondering if our government institutions are strong enough to meet the challenges and withstand the enormous threats facing America, including terrorism, war, economic uncertainty and global competition. What Americans really want to know is if our current political system is resilient enough to meet the challenges of this century, or is the current crisis of political gridlock and incivility evidence of a need for fundamental change. Can this meandering-by-design system of government keep us at the top of the global order as we face strong competition from countries with much more centralized and “efficient” political systems, like Brazil and China? And in the process of ensuring our future success can we protect our cherished freedoms and liberties?
My own view is that the system still works pretty well: the freedoms and liberties Americans enjoy are still the envy of the world. But the challenges we must face as a nation are daunting. The Founding Fathers knew, and practiced, compromise and consensus as the lubricant that keeps our political system operating well. In the past our political leadership disagreed about policy but were capable of negotiating compromise solutions. The real question is whether our political leaders are still capable of working together for the common good. And we must remember that our elected officials are as much a reflection of our society as anything. Is the American public also willing to accept negotiated solutions or are we too deeply entrenched in our own partisan foxholes? The leadership of American citizenry is key. If the public stands up and declares that we must address our national problems and insists that political leaders work together to provide solutions then we will continue as a nation of strength and resolve, often lurching, but always moving forward.
Dan Glickman is a former Congressman from Kansas and former Secretary of Agriculture. He is now a Vice President at the Aspen Institute and Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.