But however often it's repeated, this common wisdom is patently false. As a country, the United States is older than the vast majority of European states. At the time of the US declaration of independence in 1776, the states of Belgium, Norway, Germany, Italy, Finland, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Latvia had all never existed yet in any form. And that's just to name a few. The fact is that European nations are actually quite young - and that is what makes them more agile in the face of modern problems than the United States.
Even the European countries which did exist in some form in 1776 - such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and France - today barely resemble what they were at that time. The Kingdoms of France and Portugal in 1776 are now republics with completely different systems of government. And going in the other direction, the Dutch Republic in 1776 - a loose confederation of provinces - bears little resemblance to today's Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The US has had the same governing structure since 1789, the date that marks the founding of the current American republic with the adoption of the US constitution (which replaced the previous Articles of Confederation in place since 1776). The US has used the same government system since then. Contrast this with France - whose current republic has only been in place since 1958 – or the Federal Republic of Germany, which dates from 1949. Other founding dates of current European government systems include: Italy – 1947, Spain – 1978 and Poland – 1997.
In fact the only European governments that could legitimately claim to be older than the US government system are the constitutional monarchies of Britain, Denmark and Sweden – but even this is arguable since they have had significant constitutional changes over the past 200 years.
When I point this out to Europeans or Americans, they usually argue that many current European states such as Spain and France are successors to previous kingdoms that had existed for hundreds of years. But in essence this is irrelevant because the American colonials who drafted the US constitution were also setting up a successor state in the European tradition. In terms of government structure, the US is a successor state to the British Empire in the same way that the French Republic is a successor state to the Kingdom of France. And most European states today are not even replacements of older entities. For example, at the time of the US declaration of independence in 1776, the states of Belgium, Norway, Germany, Italy, Finland, Romania and Latvia had all never existed yet in any form.
Antiquated US government
So why am I going off on this little historical bugaboo right now? This issue has been on my mind during the US debt ceiling crisis over the past few weeks, as Europeans have asked me in confused and exasperated tones what on earth is going on. I've struggled to answer them, because the idea that the United States might deliberately drive itself into default is so insane. But rather than offering the usual European explanation that 'the US is young and impetuous,' I've attributed it to this – the United States is operating under an antiquated 18th century governing structure that is not suited for the 21st century.
current crisis. Because of a strange quirk in American law put in place almost a hundred years ago, the congress must periodically raise the limit on how much money the US can borrow (few other developed countries have such a concept). The debt limit has been raised 102 times since then, including 10 times by the Republican congress during the presidency of George W. Bush. But this year the Republican-controlled congress, emboldened by the Tea Party-fuelled electoral victory last November, decided to hold the vote hostage. They said they would not vote to increase the debt ceiling unless the Obama administration agreed to a massive cut in government spending on programs to help the poorest Americans.
The consequences of not voting to increase the debt limit by today's deadline would have been enormous. It would have meant not only that the US government would be unable to pay out on social security (pensions), military salaries and unemployment benefits, it would also have meant a US default on its debts for the first time in history. Ratings agencies warned that such a move would mean a downgrade in the credit of the United States, and economists predicted that the result would be worldwide economic disaster that could lead to a global recession and possible even depression.
In the face of this threat, the Democrats agreed to the spending cuts demanded by the Republicans – but insisted that they needed to be coupled by an increase in taxes on the wealthiest Americans and the end of tax subsidies for oil companies and other corporations. The Republicans refused, saying they would not agree to any tax increase whatsoever. As the August 2nd deadline loomed closer the whole thing became a giant game of chicken, with the fate of the world economy hanging in the balance. In the end the Democrats blinked, agreeing Sunday night to the Republican demands to slash government spending with no revenue increases (new taxes).
Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, columnists Paul Krugman wrote that the deal will be a disaster, not only for the US economy itself but for the political precedent it sets.
"By demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, [the deal] will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status…Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling."The whole process has been horrifying to watch, and has started to cause some observers both inside and outside the US to question whether the American government is broken beyond repair. If even a simple housekeeping measure to raise the debt ceiling was so difficult, one can only conclude that it will be impossible for the US government to address the difficult questions that must be handled if America is to get itself out of the mess its in. The whole system now seems programmed to yield perverse results. As Krugman observed,
"What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question. After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation’s economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can’t."Agile Europe, constrained America
At this point the fact that Washington is broken has been widely accepted. But so far the blame in the American media has centered around politicians and their partisan bickering rather than on the system itself. The tough questions are not being asked.
What kind of a government system gives the minority party the ability to threaten to hit the national self-destruct button unless they get what they want? In what other democracy does an arcane law (the filibuster) mean that the majority in a governing body is 60% instead of 51%? In what other system are politicians forced to perpetually campaign because they must be re-elected every two years, allowing serious lawmaking to only happen in odd-numbered years? And where else could a president be elected despite the fact that his opponent received more votes (the 2000 election fiasco)?
Just look at the big projects Europe is willing to undertake. They adopted an entirely new currency at the beginning of the last decade. They are engaged in a continual process of unification (though that process is stalled at the moment) which involves major governmental changes. Hungary just adopted a new constitution this year. In the UK, a vote was held a few months ago on whether to completely change the country's voting system. If you're looking for young, dynamic governments – the Old World is the place to be.
Can the US pursue similarly ambitious reform? Right now it seems unlikely. The idea of challenging the US constitution or the current system of government in the US is inconceivable. The US governing structure is considered so sacred, by both left and right, that the idea of tampering with it is akin to heresy. This is reflected in the current media narrative which sees the dysfunction in Washington and blames it on the politicians, as if just being a politician is inherently dysfunctional and amoral. There is no serious discussion over ending the filibuster, reforming the electoral college or making congressional terms longer. People see and recognize the problems, but there is a consensus that nothing can be done about them.
As Polly Toynbee wrote in today's Guardian, "The founding fathers built a constitution of checks and balances believing reasonable men would agree; how could they foresee Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann or Glenn Beck?"