The US Supreme Court stands in Washington.

The US Supreme Court stands in Washington.


Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Does this sound familiar? One branch of government refuses to make a decision, and another branch of government makes a decision. Another branch of government says that the second branch of government is not allowed to make that decision.

That’s what passes for American democracy today.

Take the Patriot Act, voting rights, the environment, abortion, healthcare reform, the minimum wage, gay marriage, and last week’s ruling on immigration reform. All of these issues end up in the courts because of the peculiar way our divided government “works” — by showcasing its divisions and then permitting the political adversaries to fight it out in the courts.

A court may decide that Congress or the White House has no standing in making a unilateral decision. A court may object to definitions of federal authority or state’s rights. An actual issue put to the test of a democratic majority? That never happens.

The left and right are both at fault in this little charade. Districts are gerrymandered to preserve incumbents. This preserves divided government. The Electoral College permits money to flood the margins in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, and the results are amplified into national trends.

This way of gaming the system impedes decision making because it only rewards people who can’t make up their minds — the so-called “swing voters” get all the attention. All of this has the effect of skewing the results away from problem solving, compromise, and solutions. Instead, what we get are tepid and extremely nuanced statements about leadership and very general talk of “American Needs Change” or “Vote for Better Times Ahead.”

What this all actually shows is that change is actually impossible in the United States today, which may mean that the better times ahead are also out of reach. In the American electoral system, conservatives resemble liberals to a greater degree than ever before, and the outcomes are more and more inconclusive.

No significant legislation is proposed, and anything that is proposed is either vetoed or affirmed if, once again, the discussion is who is allowed to make such a decision. Does the president have the authority to enforce Obamacare, or immigration reform? Somehow these questions are filled with Talmudic riddles, but the idea of holding people with no charge indefinitely at Guantanamo, or violating a sovereign nation’s borders and carrying out a drone strike that kills civilians — well, those appear to be no-brainers.

I’m not a constitutional scholar, but surely there must be a provision somewhere for some branch of government to actually make a decision that might help Americans. But alas, it’s back to court — that’s where immigration reform languishes, in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Will it ever get out? Don’t hold your breath.

This article was adapted from a commentary on PRI's The Takeaway, a daily news show that explores the American conversation.


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