United States


Key Challenges

Lasting governance challenges
From a sustainable-governance perspective, the United States faces numerous challenges that it has largely failed to address over the last eight years. This is due first to the divided party control of government that produced deadlock during the last six years of the Obama presidency and second to President Trump and the Republican Congress focusing on other priorities while facing difficulties in coordinating action and being distracted by the Russia-related investigations.
Lengthening list of
long-term concerns
Among the unaddressed challenges are excessive long-term budget deficits, increased economic inequality, the loss of well-paying middle-class and working-class jobs, and cost problems and provider shortages in some health care insurance markets. Racial tensions have increased, and the opioid crisis has brought an explosion of addiction and overdose deaths. Rather than address climate change, the Trump administration has promoted climate denialism and reversed existing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond its borders, the United States faces several major foreign-policy challenges centering on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the rise of China, the Syrian war and Russian expansionism.
Political system increasingly dysfunctional
The United States’ most fundamental challenges concern the political system. Polarized parties, along with factional conflict in the Republican party, have produced gridlock in policymaking. The electorate has become increasingly infected with “negative partisanship” – with each party’s supporters making political judgments and demands driven by intense disapproval, if not hatred, of the opposing party. While Trump touts his skills as a dealmaker, his missteps in dealing with Congress have exacerbated the difficulties.
Least productive Congress of modern era
The 115th Congress (2017-2018) was the least productive Congress of the modern era. In late 2018, it failed to agree on a new budget, resulting in a government shutdown that extended weeks into the next Congress. The public’s trust in government has declined to a historic nadir, mostly an indicator of government’s inability to act effectively and solve problems.
Checks, balances
partially restored
Because the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections, the system of checks and balances has been partly restored, although the Republican Senate has continued to avoid oversight of the Trump administration. For the 116th Congress, the president, the Republican Senate and the Democratic House of Republicans are unlikely to agree on major policy changes, either to enhance sustainable governance or to pursue Trump’s agenda.
Scandals, investigations likely to persist
The multitude of scandals and investigations concerning Trump, his family members and other associates will probably overshadow policy issues for the remainder of his term. The Democratic House will be a constant thorn in Trump’s side. With the power of the subpoena and led by veteran insider Nancy Pelosi, House Democrats have the authority to compel witnesses to cooperate with the many investigations that they have initiated. Administration attempts to withhold evidence (including detailed findings of the Mueller investigation) may lead to major legal conflicts or even provoke a constitutional crisis.
Focus must be on
2020 elections
Whatever evidence emerges, Trump probably cannot be criminally indicted during his presidency. With Republican senators committed to defending him, the Democratic House likely will not initiate an impeachment effort in the absence of compelling new evidence of serious offenses. Instead of attempting to remove Trump by impeachment, Democrats are likely to focus on defeating him and capturing control of the Senate in the 2020 elections.

Party Polarization

Polarization driving political gridlock
Party polarization has been the driving force behind political gridlock and the growing incapacity of the government to fulfill its function in recent years. Polarization and its harmful effects derive in large part from specific features of American political institutions.
Traditionally some overlap between parties
Independent roll-call decisions by individual members of Congress has made it possible to develop highly diagnostic data regarding the ideological position of each member of the Senate and the House of Representatives. For most of the country’s history, centrist-oriented legislators from both parties have tended to vote within the parameters of the substantial ideological overlap found between the two parties.
Ideological divisions have deepened; GOP has moved to ideological extremes
For more than a century after the Civil War of the 1860s, this overlap derived in large part from Southerners’ traditional allegiance to the Democratic party – itself a product of Republican leadership of the Union during the Civil War. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Southerners began to abandon the Democrats, and the ideological divisions between the two parties became increasingly palpable. Other developments, such as an increasingly fragmented and ideologically distinct news media landscape, Congressional reforms that strengthened the role of party factions (particularly in the House of Representatives) and gerrymandering accelerated the trend toward polarization. Data on individual congressional members’ voting records shows that the most recent Congresses have been the most severely polarized in more than a century. Most of the movement toward the ideological extremes has occurred within the Republican party.
Conflict both between
and within parties
Polarization causes gridlock in three distinct ways. First, and most obviously, if the president and at least one house of Congress are controlled by different parties, they are very much inclined to engage in conflict. In 2010, the Republican Senate leader famously remarked that the objective of his party was to ensure that Democratic President Barack Obama would be a one-term president. Second, even with unified party control, the minority party can often block policy change using the Senate filibuster. Third, during the first two years of the Trump presidency, with unified Republican control, both parties were unwilling to work with each other in developing legislation, yet the Republicans themselves were sufficiently divided between mainstream and extreme conservative wings. The four most recent Congresses, from 2011-2018, have been the least productive of any Congresses in the modern era. (Score: 3)
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