The American model of government is a complex beast. To a visitor from continental Europe, accustomed to the Napoleonic traditions of civil law and to the political realities of unitary states, the sight can be also a bit perplexing: after all, how does a country of this size prosper with a bitterly partisan, gridlocked Congress that repeatedly fails to even pass the budget on time? And how is it possible that, with an approval rating of 15%, the elected officials are not facing a wave of widespread social unrest?
I suspect that the key to solving this riddle lies in the fact that the United States is still very much a federation of self-governing states – and that most of the decisions that affect the lives of ordinary citizens are not made in Washington. Each and every state establishes its own criminal and civil law, levies its own taxes, runs its own welfare systems, and appoints its own judges – sometimes by popular vote. In fact, the states routinely confer far-reaching powers onto individual municipalities: for example, most towns and counties operate their own, completely autonomous police departments that respond to local officials, not to a career politician on the East Coast.
All this makes the government feel quite different from what you are likely to experience in Europe. Let’s stick to law enforcement: in Poland and in some other European states, where the police are a part of a sprawling national bureaucracy, the citizens may have very few options for addressing concerns that do not rise to the level of national debate. In the US, dismantling the entire police force may seem trivial in comparison: the concerned citizens may need to get a local newspaper interested in their cause, then band together to recall the local official who is ultimately on the hook. Of course, the independence comes at a price: small, self-funded police departments can be quicker to adopt questionable practices that would not stand to broader scrutiny, such as racial profiling or the rash application of civil forfeiture.
When it comes to the role of the federal government, the picture is complicated. In principle, the constitution gives it only a couple of duties; for example, the feds control various aspects of interstate commerce, print money, maintain armed forces, and handle foreign affairs. Of course, over the years, their responsibilities have expanded considerably, with the legislators exploiting the vagueness of the concept of “interstate commerce” in all sorts of creative ways. Today, the ongoing debate about the appropriate boundaries of this practice fuels the partisan gridlock in Washington. Modern-day Republicans, swayed by the conservative Tea Party movement, argue that the feds should honor the vision of the Founding Fathers and not meddle in the affairs of the states. The Democratic party, taking notes from the vaguely leftist Occupy campaign, increasingly sees the federal government as a flexible tool for establishing country-wide standards of environmental protection, labor rights, welfare, gun control, education, and other progressive causes historically associated with European social democrats.
On that matter, the voters themselves seem to be split. In polls, a robust majority of Americans declare that their government regulates too many aspects of their lives, tries to solve too many problems, wields too much control, and is inherently less efficient and less fair than private enterprises; about two-thirds of respondents see the feds as more of a problem than a solution, and a shocking 50% believe that the apparatus poses an immediate and serious threat to civil liberties. Yet, despite holding views that would make Milton Friedman proud, when asked about specific programs and entitlements – be it defense spending or Medicare – most voters oppose budget cuts. Ultimately, the equally powerful distrust of big corporations, coupled with the allure of European-style welfare systems, often sends the public into the embrace of big-government progressives who promise to solve a growing range of societal ills using federal-level income redistribution and overarching legislative frameworks.
Either way, owing to the parties’ newly-found tendency to pander to populist fringes and their inability to compromise, the dysfunctional Congress gets very little love from the average voter; but somewhat paradoxically, the representatives from each and every district are usually well-liked by their own constituents and get reelected with ease. Some blame gerrymandering, but a simpler explanation exists: most of the candidates have strong ties to the districts they represent, many of them having a track record as local politicians or successful businessmen. As a result, they understand what matters to their constituents and often meaningfully work to advance that agenda. They also live and die at the mercy of local newspapers, sometimes lending a hand to the voters who write or call them to resolve bureaucratic hurdles and address other everyday grievances. The practice of getting your representatives involved in such matters is almost unthinkable in Poland, where the slots on local ballots are traded by party officials – and are routinely handed out to people with little or no connection to the region they are supposed to represent.
With American political campaigns financed from private funds, it is often argued that the representatives in Congress are disproportionately influenced by the wealthy few and by a variety of organized lobby groups. This is likely true, although the disparity is at least partly offset by the public’s fascination with human interest stories and the tendency to root for the common folk. Ultimately, even the most cynical congresspeople can afford to be persuaded by money only when it comes to the topics that their constituents are fairly indifferent to.
Beyond the legislative and executive branches of the government, some distinct undertones of self-governance are present in the US judicial system, too. The country borrows from the traditions of British common law, rather than the civil law system utilized in much of continental Europe. It embraces the significance of legal precedent and emphasizes humanist values over the strict application of legal codes, with remarkably broad powers vested in the judges and in the juries of peers – up to the notion of jury nullification. Ultimately, the system seeks to limit the consequences of the fallibility of legislators, who often struggle to properly consider all the implications of the laws they pass; it trades it for the increased risk of fallible courts – who bring in their own subconscious biases into the mix.