In recent years, right-wing extremism has flourished in the United States. Last fall, for instance, the Tea Party movement encouraged the nomination of Republican midterm candidates like Sharron Angle, Rand Paul and Christine O’Donnell, whose views are well to the right of those of the median American voter. Although some of these candidates actually lost key midterm battles, the overall trend has been a radicalization of the right that makes bipartisanship hard to achieve. Earlier this year, in the House of Representatives, following the Tea Party’s radical antigovernment agenda, Republicans such as Paul Ryan (Wisconsin) formulated controversial and arguably extreme proposals like the privatization of Medicare, one of the largest and most popular social programs in the United States. This summer, the debate over the federal debt ceiling saw the flourishing of radical proposals from Tea Party Republicans, including calls to dramatically reduce the size of government.

Although Fox News and other media outlets have played a major role in these developments, this extremist turn was in large part made possible by the design of American political institutions. Extremism may have its ultimate origins in the paranoid and conspiratorial dynamics of American political history, but it is American political institutions that enable the cyclical recurrence of extremism in American politics. It is not simply a matter of excessive partisanship produced by social forces and antagonistic world views. It is the amplification of these positions by an institutional architecture ill-suited to governing that has drawn increasing criticism from within the American political establishment.

Even before the Tea Party became such a central player in the political debate, close observers of the continuing American political drama had begun to despair about their political institutions. In an article describing the relative success of Germany in managing the recent recession, conservative columnist David Brooks described the United States as “an institutional weakling.” On the left, in their 2005 book Off Center, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson called for institutional reforms aimed, among other things, at increasing political accountability. Far from lauding the genius of the American Constitution, there is a growing recognition that the United States faces a major institutional problem that the patriotic cult of the Constitution is increasingly unable to mask. This institutional problem, which makes current right-wing extremism so central in the first place, is America’s extreme version of the separation of powers.

The separation-of-powers doctrine is praised by constitution makers around the world as the essential foundation of limited government, and Americans have taken a radical view of it. They have established a republic with a multitude of legislative forums in which credible arguments and interpretations of problems and solutions can be offered. A multiplicity of views is a good thing, but not when it immobilizes decision-making. In the 2009-10 debate over health insurance reform, a shower of legislative proposals and counterproposals contaminated one another, confused the public and provided unhelpful openings for demagogues and special interests. More recently, this summer, institutional uncertainty exacerbated the political drama over raising the federal debt ceiling, which was done just hours before the dead-line.

This unhappy spectacle of American democracy at work underscores the point that in an extreme separation-of-powers regime, there is no government and there is no opposition. The closest Americans come to a “government” is something called “the administration.” The language is important. The Obama administration consists of all of those executive branch appointees, literally thousands of them, responsible for managing programs authorized and funded by Congress. As opposed to the situation prevailing in countries like Britain and Canada, for example, the president leads an appointed government, not an elected one.

It is true, of course, that political parties run the legislative affairs in both British-style parliamentary governments and the American Congress. We are used to contrasting these legislative bodies in terms of the degree of unity the parties demonstrate (that is, there is a higher level of party discipline in parliamentary systems than in the United States). But the difference is more profound than that. Consider what the parties in each legislature do once they have gained authority. In Congress, they elect their leadership; in parliamentary systems their leaders have already been elected. In Congress, the dominant party forms the majority, with one or two individuals, like former Republican senator Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), shifting allegiances. In parliaments the dominant party or parties form the government. At the end of the process parliamentary countries have a government; the United States does not.

A multiplicity of views is a good thing, but not when it immobilizes decision-making. In the 2009-10 debate over health insurance reform a shower of legislative proposals and counterproposals contaminated one another, confused the public and provided unhelpful openings for demagogues and special interests.

A similar condition applies with respect to the opposition. Because the elected president sweeps the field in a winner-take-all election, there is no constituted opposition left behind. In the case of a Democratic presidential victory like the one witnessed in November 2008, the Republican Party still exists, but its leader, the chair of the Republican National Committee, is not popularly elected and is seldom seen as a credible spokesperson. As happened after 2008 Obama’s victory, thousands rush to fill the void and a handful of party leaders make a credible bid for the role, but the party that loses the presidential election has no formal constitutional responsibilities. In Congress, the senior members of the party do their best to muster a coherent message, but no one can prevent defeated vice-presidential candidates, upstart governors, self-proclaimed maverick senators or blustering talkshow hosts from claiming to speak for huge opinion blocs within the party.

This is exactly what happened after Barack Obama entered the White House in early 2009, as the Tea Party and politicians claiming to speak with a true conservative voice helped shape key political and policy debates. During the 2010 midterm primaries, Tea Party supporters successfully promoted the nomination of radical Republican congressional candidates like Rand Paul (Kentucky), who won a Senate seat at the midterm election. Although some Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle (Nevada) and Christine O’Donnell (Delaware) lost, partly because of their extremist positions, it is undeniable that, during the two years following the election of Obama to the presidency, people like Sarah Palin filled the void on the right in the absence of a clear “opposition leader.” Although the 2010 midterm elections, which led to a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, created a more institutionalized form of opposition, the true “opposition leader” will truly emerge only when the 2012 Republican presidential candidate is nominated. Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Congress, including Speaker John Boehner, must deal with the self-proclaimed, non-elected opposition of the Tea Party, which is likely to rebel if the duly constituted leadership fails to confirm extreme stances on a range of issues. The above-mentioned proposal to privatize Medicare featured in the broader but equally radical “Ryan Budget” illustrates the overt willingness of many House Republicans to make such stances on major issues in order to please their narrow electoral base, which is highly influential during the primaries. The behaviour of many Tea Party House Republicans during the 2011 debt ceiling debate provides more ground to this claim, as these actors complicated the negotiations between Democrat and Republican leaders by taking extreme stances on taxation and spending issues. For at least some House Republicans, taking such extreme conservative positions is probably the best way to secure their nomination in the 2012 Republican primaries, in which Tea Party supporters are likely to play key role.

The media are rightly being blamed for providing a platform for deliberately disruptive and meretricious commentary that has facilitated the emergence of the Tea Party. The late and unlamented program Crossfire looks embarrassingly civil when compared to the barbed broadsides that pass for journalism on Fox News. To make matters infinitely worse, the Internet has vastly increased the opportunities for falsehoods to flourish, with inspired rumours and innuendoes finding a field of voyeurs on YouTube. So the media is partly to blame for encouraging Tea Party-style extremism.

Yet the media merely amplify the polarization; it is American institutions that create the large windows of opportunity for political extremism. For instance, consider that the separation of powers makes every congressman a media target. With no authoritative voice to speak for the party and no singular government to take definitive positions, a strong element of fluidity is introduced into the policy-making process. Unlike Parliament, where a single bill is presented with the expectation that amendments will not alter its fundamental purpose, Congress sees a multitude of bills advanced with the expectation that they will be merged, gutted, abandoned or disavowed as the process unfolds. Members of Congress adjust their views in Washington based on how constituents and an organized groundswell like the Tea Party seem to be reacting to ever-changing policy proposals.

A fluid process sounds democratic. Good ideas can be tossed in from all directions, rapid adjustments made in response to public reaction, and opponents on one clause can be allies on another. But the very fact that individual lawmakers, and the administration for that matter, are free to change their minds creates a confusing “who’s on first” scenario in which even close followers of the debate cannot be sure what is being considered by whom. It is in this confusion that lies and deceptions flourish. Because partisan mutual adjustment is valued in the system and practised by lawmakers on a continuing basis, claims regarding the true views of peripatetic policymakers cannot be lightly dismissed. In countries like Britain and Canada, Parliament does not operate this way. The much maligned tendency of party leaders to squelch public opposition on the part of caucus members has an upside. It is not difficult to determine a party position on any given topic, or determine that the party has no established view. And if the latter is the case, this is not an invitation for party members to float their individual trial balloons or express their personal convictions. It is an invitation to help establish in private a party position that all can defend in public.

In contrast, an extreme separation of powers privileges the mobilization of opinion blocs within civil society and allows diverse and often extreme positions a legitimacy they would be denied elsewhere. In the case of the United States, the process is vouchsafed by a commitment (more or less firm) to the acceptance of democratic outcomes and the protection of civil liberties. What this version of the separation of powers cannot deliver is accountability. Those who make accusations, including those who hold public office, and spread falsehoods are relatively immune from political disposal if they can protect a relatively narrow political base in their district and beyond. Allegations over “death panels” during the recent health care debate illustrate this sad yet institutionally embedded reality.

Within the British parliamentary system, MPs have no political base to shield them from the party’s authority, with the result that citizens in parliamentary systems focus their attention on authorized political spokesmen for the dominant parties. A dramatic example of that is the political situation in Canada, where Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has direct control over what his ministers and MPs say in public. In Canada, as in other parliamentary democracies, others who comment or offer advice are distinctly detached from a political process in which parties are the only ones in the bullring.

Many people believe that it is only the United States that has a separation-of-powers system, but that is incorrect. In Britain and Canada, for instance, the unity achieved by the concept of the supremacy of Parliament hides the multiple elements within Parliament that contest for power between elections. The difference is that the contest is regulated, the leadership is established and the locus of accountability is uncontested, at least in theory. None of this necessarily provides needed policy change, but there is a greater likelihood that when change comes, the opposition to it will be coherent and close to the views of the median voter. Extremism in opinion is a by-product of extremism in institutional design, as contemporary American policy and political debates attest.

This means that we cannot simply blame “American culture” or even the rise of the conservative movement for the contemporary politics of extremism in the United States. Although cultural and religious factors identified by people like Richard Hofstadter do play a role in the development of extremist opinion, it is American institutions that grant it legitimacy by deliberately fragmenting authority, and depriving the country of a coherent, institutionalized opposition. Although calls for moderation are always welcome, and potentially useful, institutional reform is the most effective way to reduce extremism in American politics. Americans do not need less partisanship, they need better partisanship. A way needs to be found to oblige parties to take greater ownership of their own agendas by insisting on adherence to party policy in exchange for the use of the party label. The dangers of conformism that such an innovation would invite pale beside the dangers of extremism that polarize the country and make good governance almost impossible.

Photo: Shutterstock

Michael Atkinson is a Professor Emeritus in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan campus.
Daniel Béland est directeur de l’Institut d’études canadiennes de McGill depuis janvier 2019 et professeur titulaire de science politique à l’Université McGill. De 2012 à 2018, il a été professeur à l’Université de la Saskatchewan où il détenait la Chaire de recherche du Canada en politiques publiques de la Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. Ses recherches portent principalement sur les politiques sociales, la réforme des soins de santé et la relation entre politiques fiscales et développement de l’État-providence.

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