Is American politics ruled by gridlock?

My latest New York Times column is here, and here is one excerpt:

Consider the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Coordinated actions by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and Congress geared up rapidly, were decisive by global standards and received a fair amount of bipartisan support. In contrast, the euro zone is still discussing how to manage its bailouts or whether to start a program of quantitative easing, which the Federal Reserve will begin to wind down in January. And Japan, after letting problems with bad banks fester for decades, is only now using monetary policy to fight deflationary pressures.

After that initial decisiveness in the financial crisis, America did indeed slow down in policy innovation. Bailouts and our activist central bank have become extremely contentious factors in the nation’s politics, and there has been bitter fighting over how to set into motion the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

Lunging and lurching forward with big changes, then enduring periods of backlash, consolidation and frustration, is often a better description of our political system than is “gridlock,” which is too unidimensional a concept to capture the reality.

At other times, because political flexibility is a fundamental part of the American system, it doesn’t feel as though we are defeating gridlock as much as bypassing it. Fracking — hydraulic fracturing — is reshaping the American energy sector, in part because of previous federal support for research and development, and in part because of regulatory tolerance: Many of the relevant changes took place through agencies like the Energy Department. In contrast, much of Europe is refusing to proceed with fracking at all. The American breakthrough has generated economic headlines, but rarely is it cited as an example of political success.

Do read the whole column.  Two other examples are the building of the surveillance state and the shift toward ever-tougher forms of intellectual property protection, and the spread of that philosophy to other nations through the form of treaties.  Sometimes we could use more gridlock, although I recognize that many people prefer to rail against it.

If you would like to read a defense of the gridlock view, here is Ornstein and Mann, noting that they confuse polarization with gridlock and don’t consider most of the examples and comparisons I raise.  Their argument is closer to “we shouldn’t feel very good about how things have been running,” which I have no problem accepting.  Here is Summers, responding to their critique., though he is more optimistic about the consequences of periodic non-gridlock than I am.  Here is the original Summers Op-EdMany other contributions to the political science literature either predate the recent wave of rather considerable policy reform, focus on Congress, or focus on whether polarization is preventing us from addressing income inequality.   I don’t intend those points as criticisms, simply a note that many of those pieces and books do not bear so directly on my thesis.


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