There has been much talk in recent years about the “crisis of democracy” afflicting the United States. Critics on the Left and Right—for different reasons, of course—seem to have on repeat the refrain that democracy faces an “existential threat.” Some (not all) of this is hyperbole. Despite many challenges and failings, American democracy continues to stay aloft, bumblebee-like, moving in patterns that appear chaotic and unpredictable, yet somehow managing to fly despite the aerodynamic models suggesting that should be impossible.
One aspect of democracy, however, is clearly failing. The U.S. Congress is an ineffective, dysfunctional mess. Herein lies a genuine crisis that suggests an urgent need for overhaul.
A new Gallup poll indicates that a mere 7 percent of Americans have confidence in the U.S. Congress. In fact, Congress ranks dead last in trust among the 16 institutions included in the survey—behind the much-maligned banks, big tech, big business, and even television news—all of which are certainly worthy of criticism. Said differently, 93 percent of Americans do not trust the elected representatives they themselves sent to Washington to get the job done.
It would be easy to assume that the disgust most Americans feel for Congress has to do primarily with the visible corruption, backroom dealings, insider trading, self-enrichment, and capture by domestic corporate lobbyists and foreign interests. Surely that is a part of it. But there’s something more fundamental going on here.
As the only branch of government directly elected by the people, Congress has become completely unable to perform the two basic tasks for which it was created: representing the will of the American people and making the nation’s laws. I write in Why America Matters that “as political parties have polarized, a winner-take-all combat now characterizes Congress. This is to the detriment of Americans who would prefer to see their lawmakers work together for the good of the nation. Congressional action, once characterized by compromise, deal-making, and consensus building, is now a zero-sum game.”
Consequently, the democratic power of Congress has been abdicated, and handed over to undemocratic institutions run by officials neither elected by nor accountable to the electorate. Notable examples of institutions that in recent years have stepped into the power vacuum include the Federal Reserve, the Supreme Court, and the executive branch, specifically the three letter agencies of the administrative bureaucracy and the national security apparatus. The unelected leaders of these organizations make decisions behind closed doors and without regard to what Americans want or need. This process is occasionally necessary, but it has become the dominant norm, to the detriment of our democracy. Let’s look at each in turn.
The Federal Reserve
Since at least the 2008 global financial crisis, Congress has been derelict in its duty to coordinate effective fiscal policy that stimulates investment and innovation in the real economy. Instead, Congress has defaulted to the blunt-force instrument of monetary policy, raising debt for handouts and irresponsible programs, stimulating inflation and fueling an asset bubble while handing over the steering wheel of our economy to the undemocratically appointed governors and voting members of the Federal Reserve. The Fed, in turn, has employed the only utensils it has in its toolbox, namely interest rates policy, and money supply manipulation (through quantitative easing or tightening).
The Fed’s policies are what brought us into the inflationary crisis we now face. This aspect of the story is not going to end well, no matter what the Fed does from here. But it was Congress that abdicated its power and brought us here.
The Supreme Court
When the legislative branch fails to make laws that are clear, internally consistent, and constitutionally based, the Court is asked to intervene. At times it has done so only very reluctantly, and at other times more willingly in order to shape a political outcome.
Roe v. Wade is the marquee example of the Supreme Court overstepping its bounds. As multiple legal scholars have demonstrated, Roe had no legitimate legal foundation and no constitutional authority. The Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022) was less about abortion per se than about repudiating this usurpation of power and returning it to the legislative branch, whether in the states or the U.S. Congress, where it rightfully belongs. It is now up to the American people, acting through their elected representatives, to determine the fate of abortion in the nation.
The Executive Branch and the Bureaucracy
When Congress can’t work together to make effective, coherent, and understandable laws, the Office of the President presumes the legislative role through executive orders. A bickering and feeble Congress inadvertently places more power in the hands of the executive branch. Legislative gridlock provides the opportunity for interventions. We saw evidence of this in the deluge of executive orders from the Biden Administration in early 2021 that clearly ran against the will of most Americans.
As a result of congressional impotence, the executive’s bureaucratic agencies no longer feel overly obliged to report, submit, or tell the truth to their congressional overseers. Congressional information requests, inquiries, and subpoenas are disdained and routinely ignored, stonewalled, or deceptively addressed by the security agencies, including the CIA, NSA, and FBI, and by ordinary administrative entities like the National Institutes of Health.
The intelligence agencies and the Obama Administration lied to Congress and to the public for over a decade about the existence of domestic surveillance programs put in place under the PATRIOT Act. A declassified 2013 report confirmed that these domestic surveillance activities were willful, widespread, programmatic, and in violation of numerous laws and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects Americans “against unreasonable searches and seizures” and permits the issue of warrants only “upon probable cause.”
Nearly a decade later, and despite court rulings against them, these programs continue today under different names and with authorizations of dubious legality, as the recent illegal surveillance of media personalities, parents of public school children, and other dissenting voices confirms. The punchline of all of this is that no American, Right or Left, is safe from government surveillance. As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.
As further evidence, the entire patchwork of administrative regulations, rulings, directives, and mandates implemented by the CDC, FDA, TSA, and other entities in response to COVID-19 provides a clear example of unlawful and totalitarian administrative overreach. Only the checking power of the federal judiciary was able to arrest this, albeit too late to avoid substantial damage to the U.S. economy and the mental and physical health of its citizens.
The above is just a mere handful of examples that only begin to illustrate the problem. The solution lies in returning power to our democratic institutions, namely Congress and the states themselves, which are in a combative process of reasserting their authority based on a constitutional right to manage their own affairs, with limited federal restraints as defined by the Constitution.
The one domain in which Congress seems to have been able to act quickly and with bipartisan support has been in assisting Ukraine in ways that are drawing the United States closer and closer to war with Russia. This is extremely dangerous. Amid a domestic financial crisis, characterized by inflation and unsustainable government debt, the United States to date has provided or committed to provide more than $7 billion of “security assistance,” and an equal amount of economic aid. Of course, security assistance is a euphemism for advanced weapons systems and lethal tools of war.
Never mind that several polls indicate more than 70 percent of Americans who want to help the Ukrainians nonetheless do not want to risk a direct war between the United States and Russia. Yet that is exactly what our congressional leaders seem to be aligned to provoke. Sadly, here Congress is acting against the will of the people in support of the U.S. military-industrial complex, which is more than happy to keep the weapons factories humming. The consequences may be catastrophic.
So Where from Here?
It appears likely that Republicans will take at least the House, and potentially even the Senate, in November. The temptation for revenge and retribution will be high. It would be wise of Republicans to choose a more enlightened path. November represents a great opportunity not for gloating but for magnanimity and, ultimately, political pragmatism.
Both parties have been corrupted by a political system of their joint creation, wherein self-perpetuation of power is the only ideal to which many aspire. Both parties have been captured by corporate interests. Both parties need radical reform, which should start with a change of leadership within the House.
The Democratic Party has been hijacked by progressives with a radical and Marxist agenda. If individual senators and representatives despise the extreme and destructive direction their leadership is taking them, with one or two notable exceptions, they have toed the party line. Democratic leadership can no longer legitimately claim to represent either minorities or the working classes. The party is now beholden to the corporations and billionaires who fund it. The only thing that can save it will be to wrest control back from the radicals within the party and repudiate extremist ideologies. Some Democratic primary outcomes indicate this may be happening already, but it is too early to know.
The GOP, the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Reagan, has become ossified, self-serving, and out of touch with Americans. Attention ancient GOP leadership: those you are called to serve do not include billionaires or globalist corporations and their managerial elite. The time has come to renounce elitism and the statist culture that has become institutionalized in our nation. We need a new generation of conservative women and men who will make the successor to the legacy GOP the big tent party that existed under Reagan. This will not be possible unless conservatives do a better job of advocating policies that lift up the working- and middle classes. It may require reaching across the aisle from time to time without pride or contempt.
Whether this effort succeeds or not isn’t really the point. The conflict we face today is no longer partitioned along the traditional lines of nominal Democrats and Republicans. Rather, the dividing line is between supporters of totalitarianism and defenders of liberty. The real ideological struggle lies between those who support the power of the state, of the elite technocracy, and those who believe in democratic principles of liberty and We, the People. In this sense, traditional liberals and populist conservatives now have more in common with one another than they do with the progressive Left and the corporatist and imperial Right, each of which looks to the state for solutions to America’s ills, and to control and coerce the rest of us.
Surely many Democrats are equally frustrated with the state of the Union and perhaps with the leftward drift of their own party. Ideally, this would be a moment for reasonable people from both parties to work together to seek pragmatic solutions for the good of the nation and the benefit of the people.
Expecting that such bipartisan cooperation could happen given the current level of animosity may be overly optimistic. Yet there is a precedent for it. Presidents Lincoln and Grant successfully advocated for reintegration of southern congressional leadership during Reconstruction, at a time when many Union political leaders wanted to treat the southern states as conquered territories after the war without congressional representation.
The alternative—continued paralysis and dysfunction, leading the nation further into the abyss—is too terrible to contemplate.