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KOZMA: Partisanship poisons government

Former President Abraham Lincoln presided over the most divisive period in U.S. history. His words of wisdom could help us now. – Photo by Wikimedia

The stakes could not be clearer: Democratic victories in Georgia's Senate races this January would give President-elect Joe Biden a chance to pass a meaningful legislative agenda. Voting rights, pandemic relief, a public option, paid family leave and multitrillion-dollar investments in clean energy and infrastructure are all on the table.

If Democratic candidates for Senate Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff lose, Biden will be limited to executive orders and have to negotiate with Republicans to keep the lights on. To be clear, Biden has won an absolute majority of the popular vote. He is also the seventh Democratic candidate out of the last eight presidential elections to win more votes than their opponent.

Democratic House of Representatives candidates have similarly won a majority of nationwide votes, keeping them in control. Democratic senators will represent 20 million more Americans than their colleagues across the aisle, falling short of controlling the chamber because the median state is more red than the median voter.  

We are a divided nation, but let us not exaggerate the closeness of that divide. Approximately 60 percent of Florida voters decided to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour even as most chose President Donald J. Trump. 

Clean energy mandates passed in Nevada. Paid family leave passed in Colorado. Arizonans voted to hike taxes on the rich to fund salaries for public school teachers. Legal weed reached a record high as every state with marijuana reform on the ballot, from South Dakota to New Jersey, voted for it.

Medicaid expansion was not on the ballot anywhere this year, but in the past few years  voters in only 1 of 8 mostly conservative states have rejected Medicaid expansion. All of this is to say that Democrats have a mandate to enact necessary and proper measures to fight the pandemic, transition to clean energy and build an economy that works for  everyone.

But Senate Republicans will still block anything more controversial than naming a post office (if that!). We know this because they ran the same playbook under former President Barack Obama — fearmonger about deficits and "socialism" during a crisis to prevent meaningful relief and hinder the recovery.

Republicans voted nearly in unison against a stimulus, held the debt ceiling hostage in 2013 to force trillions of dollars in unpopular and austere spending cuts and shut down the federal government that year in a futile attempt to overturn health insurance for millions of Americans.

With thousands dying every week from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and millions still unemployed, gridlock is not an option. Yet, we should expect nothing better from a party still unable to admit that Biden is the legitimate President-elect

Contrast our system with New Zealand's parliamentary democracy, where gridlock is rare and divided governments impossible because the executive depends upon the confidence of the legislature.

Last month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won re-election with 50 percent of the vote, netting her Labour Party a little more than half of the seats in Parliament. With an outright majority in Parliament, she can pass her agenda without relying on other parties.

Government shutdowns? Debt ceiling fights? No such absurdities exist. Ardern will instead concentrate on investments in affordable housing, clean energy, infrastructure and of course, relief from the pandemic. That said, she will not have to worry much about mass death since Parliament has been able to take swift and decisive action to prevent uncontrollable outbreaks in the first place.  

Ardern's and Biden's priorities are not that different, but their political institutions are. Under our Constitution, one party must control the White House, House of Representatives and Senate to enact change, but one party needs only one institution to block change. Divided government only works if both parties are willing to compromise — nobody gets everything they want with compromises, but most people get something.

This breaks down with ideologically polarized parties, as even simple things like passing a budget becomes hard. There is a reason why Latin American countries, which adopted constitutions similar to ours, tended to collapse into coups, civil wars or constitutional crises.

There is also a reason why, given the chance to rewrite the Constitution of Japan after World World II, American occupation forces opted not for the American Constitution, but for a parliamentary government in which a legislative majority was necessary and sufficient to govern. 

Miraculously, we have muddled along with our system for centuries. But can it last?

Addressing a far more polarized nation in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln warned: "If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative, for continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or the other … A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible, so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left."  

Anarchy or despotism are not on the table, but persistent gridlock from an obstructionist minority seems like a safe bet. As we head into the deadliest winter in decades, that is not a comforting thought.

Thomas Kozma is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy junior majoring in planning and public policy. His column, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” runs on alternate Thursdays.


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