The British are coming

As Barack Obama enters his final year as President, Matt Smith examines the problem of partisanship that has plagued his tenure from start to (almost) finish.


President Obama wipes away a tear whilst announcing his plan to take executive action to introduce stricter gun controls. (Photo: Time)

President Obama wipes away a tear whilst announcing his plan to take executive action to introduce stricter gun controls. (Photo: Time)

In the USA there exists a crippling phenomenon often referred to as “hyper-partisanship”. This is where politics has become so divided, so uncompromisingly split along party lines, that cooperation between the two is an executive pipe dream inspired by days gone by. On historically controversial issues like abortion, gun control and immigration the country has divided into two political behemoths that make little attempt to reconcile their differences and to reach any kind of compromise; and with the separation of powers the US constitution so carefully defines, this is the perfect recipe for the legislative quagmire known as gridlock.

Why let historical accuracy get in the way of a good story? (Photo: Britannica)

Why let historical accuracy get in the way of a good story? (Photo: Britannica)

According to legend, (handily corrected by Wikipedia) during the American War of Independence a man named Paul Revere rode through to Charlestown warning revolutionary forces along the way that “The British are coming!” Nearly 250 years later perhaps we should invoke the spirit of Revere again, this time for a midnight ride to Washington D.C. where it would seem the British have already arrived.

This is because it can be said that American politicians have begun to behave as though they were British. They have begun to stick as rigidly to their party lines as their British counterparts. Partisanship has wormed its way into every issue, leaving the members of Congress looking like supporters of rival football teams, though arguably with less vitriolic chanting (although that might make debates more entertaining).

In the UK partisanship works. Our parliamentary system means the governing party is effectively sovereign, and unless its own members rebel, it can often force its legislation through both houses with very little resistance, especially when the opposition is as torn apart by infighting as the current Labour Party. However in the US the separation of powers created by the constitution causes the government to simply freeze up whenever compromise cannot be reached. This was all well and good when the parties were prepared to deal with each other. During much of the 20th century elements of the Democratic Party were more conservative than many Republicans, and vice versa. Consequently, the president could organise the different elements of both parties in order to get legislation through Congress. However, this system of coalition building, of compromise and bargaining, crumbles when politicians begin behaving in this partisan, British way.

If in doubt, it’s the other parties fault. (Source: LA Progressive)

If in doubt, it’s the other parties fault. (Source: LA Progressive)

This can be seen throughout President Barack Obama’s tenure. Instances like the battle over “Obamacare”, the government shutdown, and the seemingly endless war of political attrition over gun control all show in startling clarity how divided and partisan the nation, and therefore Congress, has become. The president’s latest announcement, that he intends to take executive action (that is action without congressional involvement) on gun control, shows the full extent of the challenge partisanship creates. When a president is forced to rely on the somewhat sketchy arsenal of executive powers they have been given by the constitution and convention, it shows that either the president is incapable of building a coalition in Congress, or that Congress itself is unwilling to cooperate, and for Obama both apply.

Obama’s presidency has been highly divisive; his policy initiatives, and the manner in which he has tried to force them through have fuelled the partisan divide which caused him to behave in such a manner in the first place, creating a vicious circle that shows little sign of breaking. This latest announcement simply continues the trend. The executive action he can take will probably prove as divisive as “Obamacare”, and as such will only serve to further perpetuate the fractures that already run deep within American society. It is no surprise that this action comes at the end of Obama’s second term, as it allows him to be as divisive as he likes with no personal electoral backlash. However things might look a little different from the perspective of the next Democrat nominee (*cough* Clinton *Cough*), especially given her stance on the issue, but that’s a topic for a whole other article.

Regardless, what is clear is that hyper-partisanship will remain an issue for the next president, whoever they are and whichever party they are from. The partisan divide in American society is currently so strong that the midterms will always provide an opportunity for the government to be split once more, creating a credible threat for even a Republican president. The transformation of American politicians into British ones has, and always will, remain a devastating issue in US politics, and one that will most likely result in a legislative gridlock for years to come.

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