United States


Key Challenges

Legislative gridlock has impeded reform
From a sustainable-governance perspective, the United States faces numerous challenges. It has largely failed to address them, however, for more than a decade. Divided party control of the presidency and Congress produced gridlock in the legislative process. 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. After the 2018 midterm elections in which the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, gridlock 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. Yet, in 2020, the pandemic led Congress to enact bold stimulus legislation, a situation that continued in 2022 under the Biden administration and a now Democratic-controlled Congress.
Long-overlooked social, economic problems
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 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 Trump administration managed with both intentional cruelty and incompetence. On these two fronts, the Biden administration has explicitly moved away from Trump’s policies. This is especially the case regarding climate change, as the United States reintegrated the Paris Accord and adopted new policies to tackle climate change.
Destructive impact on
U.S. institutions
Trump 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.
Undermining Congress, suppressing votes
Trump 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 appointed numerous (sometimes unqualified) loyalists as federal judges. He 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 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 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.
Long-term future of
U.S. system unclear
Despite all of this, the 2020 federal elections proved to be free and fair and the advent of the Biden administration was good news for democracy. At the same time, the fact that Trump and other Republicans have failed to recognize his clear defeat is a worrying sign for U.S. democracy exacerbated by the attack on the U.S. Capitol of January 6, 2021. More generally, the same remark applies to hyper-partisanship, the rise of far-right populism, and the political manipulation of social media. In other words, the defeat of Trump is not the end of serious worries about the long-term future of U.S. democracy.

Party Polarization

Polarization driving gridlock
Party polarization has been the driving force behind political gridlock and the growing incapacity of the U.S. government to fulfill its function in recent years. Polarization and its harmful effects derive in large part from specific features of American political institutions.
Traditional overlap
among centrists
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 toward 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 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. 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. In order to pass any substantive legislation, the majority party needs to use special legislative procedure like reconciliation to get anything done. (Score: 3)
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