Congress, Commons, and the institutionalist fallacy

It’s something of a truism when people discuss US politics that the American system is uniquely obstructionist.

For Canadians especially, there’s an obvious truth to this: under our own parliamentary system, institutional power is less diffused between various branches of government and single-party rule (even without a strict popular majority) is very much the norm. Contrasted with the American model, with its two elected houses, separate executive branch, and a general cultural ethos more prone to referenda and direct democracy, ours is one in which it should be relatively easy to get things done and make sweeping legislative changes. (There’s also the matter of Canada’s campaign finance system, which is infinitely cleaner than its American equivalent in banning outright corporate donations at the federal level and putting strict caps on individual donations.)

I don’t bring any of this up for wonkish reasons, but because it’s so frequent in the American context to see liberals put conservative political outcomes down to the institutional constraints placed on their own side’s lawmakers by (small-r) republican governance. This is still a hallmark of how some discuss the Obama presidency and its supposed policy “failings” despite two years of nominal majority before the 2010 midterms. The implication, whether the issue at hand is the administration’s rather conservative healthcare reforms or the relatively meagre regulations it placed on Wall Street in the wake of the biggest single economic crisis since the Great Depression, is invariably that Obama and his allies would have somehow pushed further with fewer institutional impediments.

The Canadian model, which gives our own L/liberals a good deal more latitude, strongly suggests otherwise. I could begin this argument from basically anywhere, but let’s consider anecdotally the infamous 1993 Liberal campaign promise to create a universal, public childcare system (which, incidentally, was roughly synchronous with the Clinton administration’s retreat on healthcare). Across successive parliamentary majorities it simply never came, nor did any other significant new social program. (It did briefly resurface in 2006 when the Liberals under Paul Martin, reduced to an insecure minority and mired in a major ethics scandal, rather opportunistically became its greatest champions before losing the federal election later that year). All the national goodwill and enthusiasm that accompanied its formation in 2015 didn’t inspire Justin Trudeau to do anything transformative, despite his big legislative majority (just as the Liberals did after 1993, in fact, his government has in some areas moved in quite a different direction…).

I think these examples and innumerable others like them, all-too familiar to Canadian politics (where the Liberal Party has historically been dominant), seriously call into question the institutionalist premise so common among American progressives and liberals. (They should also, I think, serve as a corrective to Canadians who see electoral reform or similar institutional changes as silver bullet solutions that will inevitably lead to more progressive outcomes.)

If this sounds like a cynical observation, it shouldn’t. Because the crux of what I’m getting at isn’t that progress is impossible, just that we need to be a whole lot clearer both about its source and the things that stand in its way, which are less institutional hurdles than they are political impediments.

Ongoing actions by our postal workers are a good occasion to remember how public sector workers won maternity leave during the 1980s (hint: it wasn’t by electing a Liberal government then waiting for it to do Good Things™). Medicare certainly didn’t become our most cherished national institution because the niceties of our parliamentary system allowed it to glide frictionlessly through the House of Commons courtesy of a Liberal majority government.

Which is all to say, if you’re a progressively-minded American (or Canadian) frustrated with your liberal class’s failure to make life greener, fairer, or less cripplingly unequal, don’t let its standard bearers get away with telling you they’d do more if only the system allowed. We have decades of Liberal triangulation to suggest the problem is a political rather than an institutional one.

Image via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License. 


Nothing left

Thanks to the emerging debate (if you can call it that) among the American liberal punditry prompted by the Bernie Sanders surge, I’m reminded of this evergreen passage of Adolph Reed’s from his Harper’s cover story “Nothing Left” (written in 2014):

If the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred. If the right sets the terms of debate for the Democrats, and the Democrats set the terms of debate for the left, then what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms “left” and “progressive” — and in practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast version of the former — now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order. Because only the right proceeds from a clear, practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not right.

Watching the liberal commentariat (and the Clinton campaign) spin tales about how Sanders’ plans are “unrealistic” – while all the while claiming to fidelity to the ideals they represent – is like witnessing a re-run of the “third way” politics that dominated the 1990s and early 2000s.


Politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton didn’t oppose their own bases outright, because that would have been too obvious. Instead they claimed, in increasingly absurd terms, to be broadly supportive of social democratic goals while all the while chipping away at their institutional and ideological foundations. This was very often done on electoral grounds: i.e. “We have to triangulate to win, and winning is the only way to preserve the things we care about…”.

The result was predictable.

The “Overton Window” – which describes the frame inside which political debate is permitted to play out in mainstream discourse – shifted ever further to the right.

The Clinton camp’s latest line of attack is that pursuing a new healthcare goal- as Sanders wants to do – will be “divisive” and put the Affordable Care Act at risk because the Republicans will resist. The implication is that, even at an early stage in the primary season, the DNC and its base should dilute their aspirations to more or less whatever the right will permit in some unknowable political future. (It’s an especially ironic position, since defenders of the ACA’s inadequacies often claimed it would be a stepping stone to true universality, but I digress…)

If your actual goal is to make life qualitatively better for people – even gradually – conceding your opponents’ arguments before the fight has even begun is not a constructive position: it’s downright reactionary.