Our nation faces a constitutional crisis and those who deny it are whistling past the graveyard. The question is how we’ll resolve it. So far, Republicans seem bent on what I’ll call creeping balkanization. (More)

Whither Our Democracy, Part I: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

This week Morning Feature looks at the growing fractures in our society and political system. Today we consider whether our constitutional crisis will trigger a separation or, at least, a creeping balkanization. Tomorrow we’ll explore whether we might move toward a parliamentary system. Saturday we’ll conclude by asking if we’re mistaking a transitory strain for a permanent condition.

“Their own independent republic on Capitol Hill”

Salon’s Elias Isquith does not believe the Senate Republicans’ ‘open letter’ to Iran presents a constitutional crisis, and taken in isolation he’s right. But this was hardly an isolated event, as the Washington Post’s Dana Millbank explains:

The New York Daily News branded Senate Republicans “TRAITORS” in large type across its cover Tuesday, saying, “GOPers try to sabotage Bam nuke deal.”

That’s not quite right. It’s true that 47 Republican senators did their level best to bring us closer to war by writing a letter to Iran’s mullahs, attempting to scuttle nuclear talks with the United States. But Republicans aren’t exactly subverting the United States. It’s more as if they’re operating their own independent republic on Capitol Hill. Call it the State of Republicania.

Millbank then lists a bill of particulars:

  • ‘Prime Minister’ John Boehner ignoring President Obama while inviting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address “the Republicania Parliament.”
  • ‘Home Secretary’ Mitch McConnell urging states to ignore new power plant emission rules by the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • ‘Foreign Secretary’ Tom Cotton “counseling Iran’s leaders that any agreement reached by the United States but not ratified by Republicania could be undone ‘with the stroke of a pen.'”

Millbank continues:

But why stop there? Ted Cruz, serving as Republicania’s justice minister, could instruct the sergeant at arms to apprehend administration officials who testify on Capitol Hill and lock them below the Capitol crypt until they agree to more suitable policies.

That sounds far-fetched … until you read what Sen. Lindsey Graham’s told the Concord City, New Hampshire Republican Committee last week:

And here’s the first thing I would do if I were President of the United States. I wouldn’t let Congress leave town until we fix this. I would literally use the military to keep them in if I had to. We’re not leaving town until we restore these defense cuts. We are not leaving town until we restore the intel cuts.

Yes, he really did say that. If he meant “literally” literally, then as president he would use military force to make Congress pass his budget.

“Disturbingly hard to distinguish from blackmail”

Democrats weren’t the first to raise the constitutional crisis alarm. The editors of the conservative National Review did that back in November:

President Obama plans to announce tonight the most extreme assertion of domestic executive power in our lifetimes. The justification he has offered would be almost amusing if it were not so disturbingly hard to distinguish from blackmail: If Congress won’t rewrite our laws the way the president asked them to, he’s just going to do it himself.

They ignore that the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform by a 68-32 margin, and there were enough votes to pass it in the House, but Speaker Boehner never allowed the bill to the floor. They cherry-pick polls to suggest they have public opinion on their side. They then propose solutions: cut off funding to the Department of Homeland Security, even at the risk of a shutdown, on the theory that President Obama and Democrats would take the blame. (That plan failed last week.) File suit in federal courts. (A Republican-nominated judge seems likely to agree.) Stonewall nominees for Attorney General until and unless one agrees to ignore the president’s executive order. (Not gonna happen.) Regardless, the National Review editors insist, Senate and House Republicans must fight back:

President Obama’s hubris has forced a constitutional crisis. Republicans need to start saying that – and acting like it.

And that includes blaming President Obama for their unprecedented ‘open letter’ to Iran:

But those who support the letter – even some who didn’t add their names – deflected the blame. If it weren’t for Obama’s failure to consult lawmakers about the negotiations, or his threatened veto of a proposed bill to give Congress the final vote on a nuclear agreement, senators wouldn’t have had to speak out in the first place, they argued.

“I think that, no doubt, the fact that the president, you know, issued a veto threat on a very common-sense piece of legislation, probably evoked, you know, a good deal of passion,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Huffington Post Tuesday.

“Congress has incentive to muck up the works”

This is not merely about whether President Obama is a natural schmoozer (he isn’t), or whether Speaker Boehner can rein in his Tea Party Caucus (he can’t), or whether Sen. Cotton is a fire-breathing extremist (he is). The fractures are far deeper than that, as Elias Isquith explained earlier this month:

There were conservatives and liberals who disagreed vociferously, to be sure. But they were sprinkled throughout both parties; for every conservative Democrat in the South, there was a liberal Republican in New England, and so forth. But around the middle of the century, and especially in the years since the civil rights movement, that crucial ideological heterogeneity has begun to dissolve. Nowadays, the most-liberal Republican is still more conservative than the most-conservative Democrat, and vice versa.

As the parties have become more ideologically uniform, they’ve also become more rigid. The days when a politician could buck his party’s leaders without worrying about expulsion are fading fast, which has led Washington to increasingly function more like a parliament. And that’d all be fine enough if not for one increasingly disjointed but utterly indispensable player in the system – the president. In a parliamentary system, the leader of the government would generally be the leader of whichever party is most dominant in the legislature. But in America, where the president can claim to represent the people’s will just as much or more so than Congress, the flow of accountability is different.

One of the ways this plays out in real life is with a Congress run by one party butting heads with a president who’s a member of the other. As the late and highly esteemed Yale professor Juan Linz explained, the result sometimes – certainly in the case of America today – is not only dysfunction and gridlock, but dysfunction and gridlock whose approximate cause is opaque to most citizens. Since the president is disproportionately credited and blamed by the public, an ideologically uniform party in control of Congress has incentive to muck up the works, knowing that the blame is less likely to land on them than the president. Inevitably, the president and his party become more inclined to look for ways to circumvent Congress altogether.

“A two-tiered health care system”

Worse, the fractures in Washington reflect growing fractures among We the People. We are increasingly clustered in like-minded communities, as Bill Bishop wrote in The Big Sort. Some of that is about personality types, but those same personality traits correlate to political orientation, so our like-minded communities are increasingly polarized. Indeed, new research suggests that affects how we perceive the daily weather. And despite blithe hopes that we might rally around ‘moderates’ in our midst, other research suggests ‘moderates’ are just as extreme as the rest of us.

And that polarization has real policy effects:

The result will be a replay of the Medicaid mess that emerged from the Supreme Court’s first Obamacare ruling. Just as in that case, Republican-led states will be able to receive the federal money by simply choosing to participate in the program (which, in this instance, means building an exchange). The economic logic of participating will be overwhelming: while the Feds kick in 90 percent of the cost of the Medicaid expansion, they pay 100 percent of the cost of the tax subsidies. But the partisan pressure to resist will be strong.

In the end, some red states will end up building their own exchanges, just as some red states have accepted the Medicaid expansion. Some red states will hold out, at least for a few more years. America will develop a two-tier health-care system, in which blue states that participate in Obamacare are subsidized by red states that don’t.

Layer on similar divergences in other state and local policies – defiantly argued in the name of “local sovereignty” – and the result could be creeping balkanization. We’re too intermixed for easy separation by states, but we might well devolve to the point that a drive from Seattle to San Francisco or New York to Atlanta would pass through regions with laws so distinct that they might as well be separate countries and even the U.S. Constitution is applied à la carte.

Libertarians say that allows people to “vote with your feet” and move to a community whose culture and laws match your personal values. We’ll unpack that fallacy on Saturday. But first we’ll look at a very different alternative … a parliamentary system.


Happy Thursday!