Arab democrats: Beware the US model

Recent events have underscored the less desirable traits of the US political system: gridlock and self-preservation.

Capitol Hill
In 1994 Newt Gingrich pushed for term limits for US congressmen, but was unable to bring them about [GALLO/GETTY]

Americans like to think of themselves and their country as a model for the world. Indeed, this attitude of self-congratulation is one of the least attractive aspects of US culture when viewed from abroad, even if Americans themselves are barely aware of it. For most Americans, this common faith in the superiority of many aspects of their society – from popular entertainment, to higher education, to the judicial system, and so on – is part of the web of shared assumptions that underlie US culture. And among these, nothing is so firmly fixed in the American mind than the inherent superiority of their democratic political system.

Well. The world has been treated in recent weeks to the spectacle of the vaunted two-party American political system as it has driven the government heedlessly to the very brink of a disastrous default on its debt payments. This national financial near-miss, and the profound scepticism it has generated concerning the US’ long-term ability to put its fiscal house in order, has roiled global stock markets, and threatens, if not soon addressed, to upend the dollar-based global financial system which has been in place since the end of World War II. Whether such a change in the global financial system is a good or bad thing over the long term I cannot say, but it would not happen without severe global economic dislocations, from which all would suffer.

On the surface, it would appear that the dysfunction at the heart of the US Congress is due to the ideological inflexibility of both Democrats and Republicans, who refuse to compromise in making self-interested appeals to their respective constituencies. The former refuse necessary cuts in social benefits, while the latter refuse to contemplate even sensible tax increases. Together, they reflect an apparent refusal on the part of Americans to live within their means. Indeed, that refusal, reflected in huge, endemic and unsustainable trade and budget deficits, and in the rapidly accelerating growth of the US national debt, is abetted by the dollar’s status as a reserve currency, which has greatly moderated what for any other nation and any other currency would be enormous downward pressure on exchange rates. Thus, the world’s faith in the US has served to reward American faithlessness. 

Particularly as they have been shielded from some of the worst immediate effects of their profligacy, Americans’ lack of fiscal discipline should come as no surprise. It would be hard, however, to make the case that their irresponsibility is owing to something unique in the US national character – particularly as we are currently confronted with the disastrous results of years of Italian self-indulgence, and with the political infantilism of the Greeks, as they riot in the streets against the inevitable results of their own mismanagement, to name but two recent and prominent examples.

No, to understand the core of the problem in the US system one must look deeper, at the nature of the system itself.  Those in the Middle East who are currently struggling to democratise their systems of governance would do well to take a hard look to the US model: Not just to copy its positive aspects – and there are many – but to avoid its palpable weaknesses. As I used to note for younger cadres who suffered under my years of management in government, one should not doubt the value of a negative model. For students and proponents of democracy there is much to be learned from the US, even if the nature of those lessons is not always what most Americans would anticipate.

The current US legislative system did not spring forth from the minds of the US’ Founding Fathers intact and immutable. Like any system, it evolved over time. Although the US model of governance is a federal one, nominally leaving much authority to the individual states, the story of the US has been one of steady, incremental centralisation of authority at the centre.

Concentrating power in Washington

To track this, it is necessary to do what mafia prosecutors do: follow the money. Over time, a steadily increasing proportion of tax revenues has flowed to the federal government, at the expense of the states. With that money has come greater authority. Rather than the citizens of the states making spending decisions at the local and provincial level, where their input would be far more direct and the opportunities for abuse, mismanagement and duplication far less, key decisions are more and more frequently made in Washington.

Thus, the money which has flowed from the states is then bequeathed, magnanimously, back to the states. Only now, the uses to which that money is to be put are dictated by, and bureaucratically administered from, the centre. Moreover, free of the balanced-budget constraints which exist in most states, the federal government can dispense largesse, particularly for health, retirement and other large-scale “entitlement” programmes, using money it does not have, for the purpose of expanding and sustaining its own power.

This was not the intent of the framers of the US constitution. Their vision was one of citizen legislators, who would temporarily put aside their careers in business, the professions, or academia, to serve the public good for a time before returning to their communities. Those who originally conceived the US system did not foresee the rise of a permanent class of professional legislators, motivated to ignore the greater good in order to sustain themselves in office.  

Polls show conclusively that Americans are greatly concerned with the national debt, even if they disagree strongly about how to cut it. The same polls, unsurprisingly, show popular disdain for a Congress whose political cowardice and fecklessness were so prominently on display during the recent crisis over the US debt ceiling.

Citizens’ disdain, however, usually does not extend to their own congressmen. Why? Because in the desperate effort to win federal dollars, an individual congressman’s worth is determined not by her ability to change a dysfunctional system, which she can hardly do alone, but by ensuring a fair share for her constituents. Remember, in Washington, congressmen are not citizen-legislators, but professionals. Their influence, measured by their ability to get money for their states and districts, is not determined by merit, but by seniority.

A voter who might otherwise be tempted to send a message to Washington, and to try to change the wasteful and self-serving culture of the Capitol knows that the result of voting his or her congressman out of office will most likely be to gratuitously disadvantage one’s own locality in the zero-sum competition for federal money.

Term limits needed

An evil genius working alone could not have devised a better system for favouring incumbents, who indeed are consistently shown by election results to be greatly advantaged. The only way to address this systemic weakness and to bring public-spirited responsibility to US governance is to impose a systemic change: That is, to impose term limits on federal legislators. 

In 1994, Newt Gingrich, the then newly-elected Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives, announced a new conservative agenda, designed to bring an outsize federal government to heel. Whether one loved or loathed him and his policies, one would have to concede that he had a thorough understanding of the fundamental dynamics of the US governmental system in which he had grown up.

At the heart of his radical agenda was congressional term limits. Though his supposedly small-government Republican colleagues were forced to support him nominally lest they appear hypocritical, they proved to be every bit as attached to their political careers as were their Democratic colleagues. Gingrich failed to reform Congress; and the record since has demonstrated that fundamental reform of the US congressional system will not come from Congress itself.

The new democrats of the Arab Middle East doubtlessly feel that they have more fundamental concerns at present in trying to win and sustain their fundamental political rights. Painful history has certainly taught them the need for term limits for presidents and other executives. But if they are wise, they will heed the negative model of the US Congress, and ensure that those whom they elect to newly-empowered legislatures reside within a system which aligns the motives of the legislators with those of the people whom whey serve. If the newly-democratised wish to control their destinies over the long term, they need to ensure that their representatives are not only elected by them, but are truly of them.

In the meantime, to the extent that world prosperity is placed at risk by the irresponsibility of the US Congress, all should hope that Americans will be stirred by the current crisis to address one of the manifest shortcomings of their own political culture.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.