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The real separation of powers in modern America


Nowhere in Europe are universities as central to national life as in the US. Time-hogging is part of it: four rather than largely three year degrees, two as opposed to one for graduates. Then there is the enmeshment with professional sport. The campus is a portal to the big leagues in a way unknown to European football, where careers are made at a younger age. Throw in the vast cost, and it is natural that Americans stamp their alma mater on car rears and hoodies.

It is also natural that they would curse academia’s politicisation. When Allan Bloom wrote about the left’s capture of education in The Closing of the American Mind, his thesis was novel. Thirty-four years on, even liberal faculty, hounded by students for whom liberalism is not enough, ask if he went far enough. The first stirrings of a fightback are in the air. It is hard to know whether to cheer it on or fear the perverse consequences.

America has arrived at a strange kind of equilibrium. The left enjoys an entrenched supremacy in culture that spans universities, publishing, Hollywood, corporate PR and, deplatformed Republicans would say, social media. There is no print equivalent of Britain’s tabloids to offset the hegemony. Whether or not the left ever planned this march through the institutions, the resulting monoculture has discontents beyond the registered Republicans who turn to Fox News. The huge podcast audience of Joe Rogan, who traffics in something closer to libertarianism, is proof of that.

The temptation here is to grant the right’s self-image as underdogs. But then we turn to its own exorbitant privilege. With its bias towards small states, the Senate confers on Republicans power beyond their raw vote share. The electoral college does the same in presidential contests. On these two institutions rests control of yet a third: the judiciary. Three of the nine Supreme Court justices were put forward by a president who lost the popular vote, and confirmed by a Senate in which Wyoming’s 600,000 souls weigh as much as California’s 40m. Even before gerrymandering and the Senate filibuster, Republicans profit from countermajoritarian rules of the game. As consolation for a lack of tenured professors, this isn’t bad.

Neither of these advantages is innate or illegitimate. It is up to the Democrats to win more small states. It is up to Republicans to take weather-making institutions as seriously as Washington. The outcome is the same, though: a broad parity of ingrained privileges, each one deepening over time.

It is hard to say which side has the better of the deal. On the face of it, politics is well downstream of culture. In a country that backs same-sex marriage by more than two-to-one, for instance, even a rightwing Congress could not proscribe it. In other areas, though, Republicans are able to buck the public will to a formidable degree. Polls suggest that voters want to increase taxes on the rich. The Senate has more often done the reverse in recent years. Normative pressure is only worth so much against hard votes.

If there is no clear winner from the present system, the question is whether to do anything about it. To mixed receptions, the right is setting up its own social media channels. A challenge to critical race theory in universities and the media is mounting. All the while, some Democrats want to change the filibuster, which requires lots of bills to win a supermajority of the Senate. Calls for reform of the Supreme Court and qualms about the electoral college are both audible in a party that feels snookered by the rules.

Each side’s impatience with the current arrangements is forgivable. If only change were not so pregnant with unintended outcomes.

It may be that what holds a fractious America together is that neither the red nor blue half ever has total command. The Republicans can lose an election handsomely and still wield blocking power. Six months into the job, President Joe Biden’s legislative gains are increasingly fitful. Equally, the US left can be out of office and still guide the norms, tastes and even language of both the nation and, to a staggering extent, the world. On their own terms, each of these compensations is hard to excuse. Together, they add up to a workable stalemate.

In a sense, America benefits from a separation of powers that is deeper than the one codified by its founders. It is that between politics and culture; between formal and informal clout. One side has advantages in politics “proper”. The other gets to set the atmosphere in which it takes place. That this is an ill-gotten kind of peace does not mean there are better ones available.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

 



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