United States


Key Challenges

Challenges unmet
due to political gridlock
From a sustainable-governance perspective, the United States faces numerous challenges. It has largely failed to address them, however, for the last nine years. Divided party control of the presidency and Congress produced gridlock for the last six years of the Obama presidency. And even with unified government in the first two years of the Trump administration, Congress proved extremely unproductive, mainly because of intra-party differences within the Republican party. Since the 2018 midterm elections in which the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, gridlock has continued under a divided government and amid the constant interruptions and distractions of various scandals involving members of Trump’s administration and his associates, and the Trump impeachment itself.
Long, growing list of serious problems;
Trump policies have
created new challenges
The sustainable-governance challenges that U.S. policymakers have largely overlooked include excessive long-term budget deficits, increased economic inequality, the loss of well-paying middle-class and working-class jobs, as well as problems with costs and provider shortages in healthcare insurance markets. Racial tensions have grown, and the opioid crisis has brought an explosion in addiction and deaths due to overdose. Rather than address climate change, the Trump administration has promoted climate denialism and reversed existing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The United States has a refugee crisis at its southern border, which the administration has managed with both intentional cruelty and incompetence. Beyond its borders, the United States faces major foreign-policy challenges centering on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the war in Syria and Russian expansionism. Some Trump administration policy pursuits, such as engaging in trade conflicts with China, abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, and weakening the Western alliance, have actually created foreign-policy problems.
No prospect of major legislation until elections
The Democratic House in 2019 passed dozens of bills that would have addressed most of these issues. But neither Trump nor the Republican Senate took any notice of them. Instead, they touted a symbolic proposal for a second major tax cut, even though their 2017 tax cut had doubled the federal annual budget deficit to $1 trillion (USD). With these conflicting policy agendas, there is essentially no prospect of major legislation until the next Congress in 2021.
Increasingly severe polarization
The most fundamental challenges facing the United States, however, concern the political system, whose problems have been exacerbated by actions taken by the Trump presidency. Over the last 25 years, the increasingly severe ideological polarization of the country’s political parties has produced debilitating gridlock in policymaking. So-called negative partisanship, or the tendency to form political views primarily in terms of opposition to a party one dislikes, has penetrated the electorate to an extent that each party’s supporters express intense disapproval of or even hatred toward members of the opposing party. In advance of the 2016 presidential election, the nomination process – which is driven by primary elections – yielded Trump as a Republican candidate although he had no support among prominent conservative commentators or Republican leaders until his early primary victories made him the likely nominee.
Destructive, dangerous president
Trump has proved more destructive and dangerous as president than even his most severe critics had predicted. His chronic misconduct has resulting in an array of serious scandals, a damning report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and his impeachment by the House of Representatives. Numerous commentators from the orbit of the pre-Trump Republican Party have called for his removal from office or for his defeat in the next election. But his intense, cult-like support among the Republican voter base has deterred Republican officeholders, most importantly the Senate majority, from removing him from office or otherwise holding him to account. His often autocratic style of governance is a stress test for the institutions of checks and balances in the United States.
Election is critical
juncture for democracy; many states acting to suppress vote
The 2020 election therefore will be a critical juncture for constitutional democracy in the United States, particularly with respect to free and fair elections and the rule of law. Primarily in an effort to protect himself from being held accountable, Trump has politicized at the very least the top layers of the Justice Department, and to lesser degrees the State Department, the intelligence community and other agencies. He has appointed numerous (sometimes unqualified) loyalists as federal judges. He has often ignored or attempted to undermine the constitutional prerogatives of Congress in oversight, investigation and policymaking. With respect to elections, Trump and the Republican Senate have blocked legislation to strengthen defenses against Russian or other foreign interference in the electoral process, despite official intelligence findings of ongoing Russian efforts to interfere. Partly to counter strong adverse demographic trends, Republicans in many states have adopted measures that are designed to suppress voting by racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income people, most of whom generally vote for Democratic candidates.
Risk of turning into authoritarian sham democracy
If not defeated in the 2020 elections, Trump and the Republicans will most likely proceed to entrench politicized law enforcement, an acceptance of foreign election interference, and the suppression of minority voters so as to capture a lasting advantage in national elections. The same political party that for generations presented itself as the defender of traditional constitutional values might then preside over a transformation of the political system into an authoritarian sham democracy. If the Democrats succeed in the elections, they will face a momentous challenge of rebuilding critical institutions and making them more secure against future authoritarian challenges.

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.
Tradition of centrist lawmakers
Independent roll-call decisions by individual members of Congress have 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.
Movement to extremes comes from Republicans
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 have accelerated polarization processes. 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.
Least productive
Congresses of
modern era
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 five most recent Congresses, from 2011 to the present, have been the least productive of any Congresses in the modern era. (Score: 3)
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