Kyle Scott, PhD, teaches American politics and constitutional law at Duke University. He has published three books and dozens of articles on issues ranging from political parties to Plato. His commentary on contemporary politics has appeared in Forbes, Reuters.com, Christian Science Monitor, Foxnews.com, and dozens of local outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun.
As frustrating as the gridlock in Washington may be to most Americans we must keep in mind that this is the way it is supposed to work and that the gridlock is actually a good thing. While government efficiency is desirable when the government is administering a service, efficiency is less desirable when it comes to decision making. We should be more concerned with getting it right than getting it quick. Delay prevents passions from dictating policy decisions, it makes sure the concerns from all sides are considered, and it allows for a more transparent and responsible process. From the time of the Roman Republic through the American Founding political thinkers have recognized the inclusive and protective nature of political conflict.
Roman historians like Sallust and Livy recognized that conflict was good for a republic and it was the primary advantage a republic held over democracies and autocracies. Political conflict is the safeguard of liberty as it prevents one side from executing its desires at the expense of others and only a republic can guarantee that political conflict exists. In a democracy the will of the majority is implemented without regard for the opinions of the minority. The majority can be fickle and be moved more by passion than by reason. Think of how easily troops can be sent into combat or policies that restrict rights and liberties can be enacted when a sentiment of unbridled patriotism and fear sweep through a nation.
Also, autocracies can be efficient but at a great price. No one doubts that when the will of a single leader can animate an entire government that things can be done expeditiously, but very rarely do such policies turn out good for the people. In North Korea if the leadership wants something it gets done quickly as there is no opposition, but most people would not want efficiency at that price. So we have to be realistic about our political process. While efficiency may be desirable it comes at a price, and the price is rarely worth it.
Political conflict assumes that no one side sufficiently represents the perfect political solution and therefore each side has the right to be heard. Through conflict each side is given the opportunity to express its views and defend its views against the views of the other side. Not only does this give each side the ability to defend its interests but it also has a psychological advantage as it makes people feel as though they matter in the political process and thus acts as a release valve. If opposing views are quieted and kept out of the public sphere those who have those views will feel alienated and will look to overthrow the existing regime through nonsanctioned means. By facilitating conflict within the political arena everyone is given a voice thus diminishing the risk of alienating large segments of the population which then helps stabilize the system.
Like their Roman predecessors, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay recognized the inclusive and protective nature of political conflict. In the celebrated Federalist PapersMadison, Hamilton, and Jay—writing under the pen name Publius in honor of Publius Publicola who helped lead the overthrow of the Roman monarchy in order to establish the Roman republic—argued for a system of government that would enable and channel political conflict.
The Constitution, according to the American Publius, creates a system in which no action can be taken unless inaction is not an option. The American Publius argued for, and achieved, a system that would induce delay in order to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority and prevent the government from putting into effect a poorly thought out and weakly supported plan. The delay, while frustrating, keeps the system in balance and protects liberty. This is why we have three branches of government that have the ability to check one others’ authority as well as a federal system where the local levels can check the authority of the national level.
So when you find yourself getting frustrated with Washington gridlock keep in mind this is how things are supposed to work and that it is better than the existing alternatives.