The Case for Gridlock

Simeon Morris

In the political mosaic that is American life, it is often claimed that the American people want a government where both parties work together. For years now, the media has been reporting on a “cooperative” sentiment amongst the American populace; the sentiment that the American people want bipartisanship and unity within the polity. Indeed, President Obama himself advanced a campaign platform of bipartisanship and government cooperation. Therefore, I contend that despite voting records seeming to prove to the contrary, the so-called “mandate” of the people truly is for the Republicans and Democrats to work together and find common ground. The American people want a political system that, in their minds, “works.” As such, it would follow to say that many Americans now fear that with the election of so many Republicans to the House of Representatives, in conjunction with the maintenance of a Democratic Senate and Presidency (ergo, divided government), will create gridlock. The fear, then, is that the mandate of the people will continue to go unrealized.

To begin, I am willing to concede that the American people’s “mandate” is noble in thought; however, in action, it can only best be described as noble naiveté. It would behoove the American people to remember that it was active bipartisanship that propelled us into our current Iraqi-Afghan debacles, it was active cooperation that allowed for billions to be spent on bail-out packages, and it was in solidarity that the two parties worked with the Federal Reserve to jointly “torpedo” our economy. No, bipartisanship is not what the United States needs, though again, it is certainly what the United States wants. I, on the other hand, am making a case that is not “civic minded” and is almost certainly undemocratic in its scope, as I want to deny the people their wish; I actually want gridlock in the halls of power. Simply put, I contend that gridlock is good.

The case for gridlock has been made many times by individuals of different ideologies; however, seeing that the populace seems to still so avidly desire bipartisanship, it appears the case for gridlock must continue to be made. This all is not to say that I believe that the two parties should have no cooperation, but it is to say that the slow, deliberative and even divisive nature of gridlock is what is truly needed, not bipartisanship for the sake of working together. It is my contention, just as it was Thoreau’s that the best government is that which governs least, and I argue that a gridlocked government provides the best mechanism towards that end.

Photo taken from Google images

Indeed, to truly understand why gridlock is good, one first must dispel with the myth that the two parties are truly working for some established set of principles or some moral vision. It is important to make the distinction between a party’s platform and its actions. One need not look any further than the wars and excessive spending of the George W. Bush presidency, who ran on a platform of a humble foreign policy and fiscal conservatism, to see that the Republican Party was anything but a follower of its own platform. To be sure, it was the Bush 43 Campaign that criticized the Clinton administration for acting like the United States was a world “police force.” What’s more, the same Republican leaders who championed (and continue to champion) a Romney presidency are the same ones who so fiercely opposed ObamaCare, despite the fact that RomenyCare in Massachusetts was nearly identical to Obama’s plan. Perhaps nothing is a more egregious betrayal to the Republican fiscal platform than the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which allowed for a $700 billion bailout package—all under the Bush captaincy. Of course, Boehner and McConnell, the upcoming House Majority Leader and the current Senate Minority Leader (respectively), who are now champions of fiscal restraint, voted for the original Bush bailout just some two years ago.

The Democrats, though, have not faired any better, as President Obama and his Democratic-controlled congress continued the exact same draw-down plan that was presented by the Bush administration (as well as the McCain campaign) to deal with the Iraqi-Afghan question (in fact, we still have 50,000 troops in Iraq alone). This all to say nothing of the fact that Secretary Gates was asked to continue his job as Secretary of Defense under the Obama administration from the Bush tenure—there can be no question as to why thus was so. Furthermore, economically, the Democratic congress continued to endorse Bush-style bailouts at increasing volumes. Even with civil liberties—the supposed strong point of the Democratic Party—the Democrats have failed to deliver. Take, for instance, the USA Patriot Act— act of which passage was used so avidly by Democratic Party members to criticize the Bush administration and Republican members of Congress as being intrusive, overly-broad and seemingly totalitarian—which was not only passed with the help of several Democrats in Congress, but was also extended by President Obama in February of last year. In other civil-libertarian realms, Guantanamo Bay remains open and Predator Drone strikes have not only continued, but have intensified in scope on villages within the sovereign nation of Pakistan, in recent months—this all to say nothing of Eric Holder’s (President Obama’s own appointed Attorney General) promise to continue to arrest marijuana users in California even if Proposition 19 did pass.

Simply put, there are countless examples of these two parties blatantly betraying their platforms and “principles” and continuing the status-quo once they enter into the halls of power. Even then, these parties not only many a time go against their platforms, but as displayed, their actual in-house policies are very similar to one another’s. All that can be logically surmised then, is that these two parties do not really disagree all that terribly much, but they just fight each other to gain and keep political power.

Today, as the United States teeters along the precipice of insolvency, what is needed is not just an overhaul of how various government programs run, but massive decreases in government spending altogether. However, the two parties have shown themselves to be, on balance, more interested in continuing to spend to maintain and even increase the funding for their own “pet” projects at the expense of the other party’s projects; that is to say, that they have shown themselves to be only interested in entitlements and empire, and not fully committed, on a whole, to reducing the national debt. Even with the new Tea Party surge, the Republican party seems just as poised to maintain, if not expand, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and despite being voted out of the House, the Democrats seem just as poised to ensure that unemployment benefits and other entitlements remain untouched. Quite simply, the fact remains that even in these economic ‘doldrums,’ these two parties, as a whole, do not appear to be champions of anything more than appropriation reallocation. They are, most certainly, champions of their “pet” projects and patrons of those who maintain their power (such as giving concessions with respect to Don‘t Ask Don‘t Tell and the Bush tax cuts), but they are not forces that actively look to increase the liberties of which they claim to promote.

If such behavior is to be the norm, and history shows that it most certainly is, then I argue that it should be used to our advantage. The divisiveness of the two parties should be used against one another to the advantage of the populace. Gridlock is good because it, in essence, stops the legislation process from “working“ and thus stops the expansion of government, and by extension, the expansion of government expenditure. An important distinction be made, however, is that a “working” government, in the way that the parties and even most Americans see it, is one that is constantly legislating—which is to say, one that is constantly involved in interference, redistribution, and usurpation. Simply put, if the government is constantly legislating (“working”) and politics is, by design, a system by which there are always “winners” and “losers,” then a government that is “working” is one that is also working against someone; in my view, this can only be described as anathema as it supposes, at its core, the taking away of someone’s liberties for someone else’s gain. Another distinction to be made is that between gridlock, where the two parties are stuck in a deadlocked power struggle in different houses or branches of government, and divided government, where it is simply that the two parties occupy different houses or branches, but still can rule in a spirit of accommodation. Though divided government is a necessary condition for gridlock, it is not a sufficient condition; thus, the division of power is not enough to ensure liberty in our polity, but as it stands, only an utter stalemate in governance can allow that to occur.

By forcing rigidity into the system, gridlock significantly decreases the amount of legislation that can pass through Congress, as it uses the struggle for power between the two parties as a means of stopping legislation. Fundamentally, if we are not to stop the two parties from spending and expanding government by themselves, then we can at least use their mutual hate, or more specifically, their want for political power, against each other as a means of protecting the socio-economic liberties that we currently maintain. Make no mistake, gridlock does not necessarily denote an effective apparatus by which liberty is expanded, but it is certainly a way to keep it stable. Having endured the usurpation involved with both the Democratic and Republican controlled governments over the past few years, a little stability in liberty—in knowing that legislation will be much harder to pass—is a most welcome notion. When the government is not expanding, the private sector, which is to say the sector based on voluntary action and exchange, is allowed to rule the day. When the government is gridlocked, it is, at the very least, not usurping our rights and liberties.

One need not look any further than the Clinton Presidency, (which saw a Republican-controlled Congress for the majority of the presidency) where the deficit and the size of government actually significantly decreased, to see gridlock in action. It was not increased bipartisanship or even consensus that allowed for the “Clinton Years,” but it was gridlock and divisiveness that allowed for the decrease in government involvement and thus the increase in economic growth.* Compare that, however, to the so-called conservative Bush administration and its Republican-controlled Congresses from 2001 to 2007 or the so-called progressive Obama administration and its Democratic-controlled Congress of the past two years, where complete party control, I must reiterate, saw the expansion of the Welfare and Warfare State, which has only resulted in the erosion of our economic and civil liberties.

I assert, again, that a divided government, such as our upcoming government, is simply not sufficient because if these parties grant the American people the wish of avid bipartisanship, but simply for the sake of cooperation and making the government “work,” large deficits and significant government expansion will surely rule the day. If these parties have, in the past, singularly and jointly increased usurpation, it only follows that they will continue to do so in this next Congress. What is needed is gridlock, where nothing but the most necessary of bills to keep the government from collapsing are passed, where debate and discussion are the masters of the day, and where party-politics is used to hinge both parties against each other, so that at the very least, the populace can be left alone from the grand machinations of both parties. Indeed, gridlock is the means by which the impropriety that is power-politics is used to the benefit of the citizenry. Again, I do not want some “people’s mandate” of party cooperation to come to fruition, and we certainly do not just need cooperation and bipartisanship for the sake of it, in fact, we need a little gridlock so that damage can at least stop being inflicted by either party.

* This increased private sector growth is not to be confused with, though cannot be entirety separated from, the inflationary bubble created by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, which would result in the dotcom crises of the early 2000s.

Simeon is a Junior in Muir College majoring in Political Science and History


  1. […] What I am supporting, by advocating for the voting for both Hurt and Obama, is that dreaded occurrence, political gridlock.   Sadly enough, given the unsavory voting choices I am offered between the Democrats and Republicans, I think the closest I can come to having a positive effect on what occurs in DC is by doing my best to prevent either party from getting their way.  A strong defense of gridlock similar to what I would have to say about the matter can be found here. […]

  2. […] cliff.”   But is a bogged-down Congress necessarily a bad thing?  As this column from the California Review contends, “the slow, deliberative and even divisive nature of gridlock is what is truly […]

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