Our system, as any historian will tell you, was built by men who hated parties and anticipated their absence from American politics. That didn’t quite work out. But for much of American history, and particularly for much of the 20th century, our political parties have been unusually diffuse and unable to act as organized, ideological units. That left them well-suited to a system that, for reasons ranging from the division of powers to the filibuster, required an unusual level of consensus to function.
But as the two parties have polarized, we’ve learned that a system built for consensus is not able to properly function amid constant partisan competition. The filibuster has gone from a rarity to a constant. Compromise has become rare. Crises of gridlock, such as the recent showdown over the debt ceiling, have become common. And no one can say that this is what the American people want: The approval ratings of Congress have been on a downward slide for decades, and they have never been lower than they are today.
...Polarization is with us now and will be with us for the foreseeable future. The question is whether we will permit it to paralyze our political system and undermine our country or whether we will accept it and make the necessary accommodations.
Doing so would require taking on cherished, consensus-promoting features of the old system, like the filibuster. But in today’s girdlocked world, those features no longer promote consensus. They simply promote gridlock.
The federal government, and many state governments as well, is moving somewhat quickly from dysfunctional to nonfunctional. On the federal level, there are too many ways even a tiny, irresponsible minority can completely shut down the government, in particular the Senate. Meanwhile, many state governments are paralyzed by things like laws requiring a referendum or unrealistically high supermajority for basic functions like taxation.
It needs to stop.