Overcoming Political Immobility

The American Republic is facing a crisis of political immobility caused by Tea Party extremism overcoming the traditions of compromise that date back to the Founding. History has troubling lessons for such moments, but there are signs of hope, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Last month, Dov Zakheim, in the course of discussing the baleful influence of the Tea Party phenomenon on U.S. national security, likened some of what we are seeing to the French Fourth Republic, which lasted only a dozen years following World War II.

The comparison is apt, and not only with regard to the effect an image of unreliability — which in the case of the Fourth Republic stemmed largely from short-lived, revolving-door governments — has on foreign relations. We also have been seeing in Washington much of what the French called immobilisme: a simple inability to get things done.

French President Charles de Gaulle in 1961.

French President Charles de Gaulle in 1961.

With a historical precedent such as that, we naturally should think of what lessons the precedent might hold for how we could get out of our own similar problems. What brought the Fourth Republic to an end and opened the way to the longer-lived and relatively more stable Fifth Republic was not just impatience and disgust with the immobilisme but a full-blown crisis involving the insurrection in Algeria, which had begun in 1954. Portions of the French army began revolting, with the high command that was fighting the war in Algeria making common cause with French settler interests and threatening to move on Paris.

Also crucial to what would follow was political leadership and one leader in particular: Charles de Gaulle, the French Cincinnatus and leader of the Free French in World War II. The rebellious generals of 1958 insisted that de Gaulle come back from Colombey-les-Deux-Églises and rescue the nation once again. De Gaulle did so, becoming the last premier of the Fourth Republic before becoming the first president under the new constitution of the Fifth.

The outsize prestige and stature of de Gaulle were needed even beyond that moment, as the Algerian insurgency wore on. Contrary to the expectations of some of those who had called for his return, de Gaulle concluded that Algerian independence had to be accepted and initiated peace talks. A quartet of French generals who, along with pieds noir French settlers, could not stomach that concept attempted a putsch in Algiers in 1961.

De Gaulle stared down that move but then had to contend with a terrorist campaign by the Secret Army Organization, led by Raoul Salan, a former commander of French forces in Indochina and an escaped perpetrator of the putsch. For an American comparison, imagine if a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan had first attempted a coup and then formed a terrorist group that started setting off bombs in American cities. In short, really bad stuff.

We do not want to go through anything like what the French went through. If this is the cure for immobilisme, it would be fair to say the cure is even worse than the disease.

The right response to that gloomy conclusion is to look for even partial cures, including ones in our own experience. They exist, particularly in the reform of election laws. This kind of procedural and legal engineering can do much to overcome even the less salubrious aspects of contemporary American political culture.

For an exemplar and for lessons we can look not to France of the 1950s but to California of the past few years. Two pieces of electoral reform have been especially beneficial. First, California is one of the few states that have taken legislative and congressional redistricting out of the hands of state legislatures and given the task to nonpartisan commissions.

Second, California is one of three states (Louisiana and Washington are the others) to adopt the open primary system, in which the top two vote-getters regardless of party face each other in a second round election if no one gets a majority in the first. These two changes have greatly increased the need for politicians, if they are to be elected, to appeal to a broader spectrum of opinion rather than to a narrow party base.

The results in California have been dramatic. In short order it has gone from a model of fiscal and political dysfunction at the state level to a place in which much productive across-the-aisle work gets done. There is no doubt that making the same electoral changes across the country would make an enormous difference in how the U.S. Congress operates. How Congress operates now, with the frequently invoked threat of a Tea Party primary challenge exemplifying why it operates that way, richly earns it its nine percent approval rating from the American public.

Part of what made electoral reform possible in California is that it is easier there than in most other states for citizens’ movements to put initiatives on a statewide ballot. That practice has its own problems, including overly long ballots and the constraining effects of the notorious Proposition 13. But it is not nearly as bad as coups and insurrections as a way of overcoming immobilisme.

Leadership has been important, in California as well as in France. A Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, provided important muscle in pushing for reform. The current Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, has used his veto power to help contain some impulses from within his own party that did not have broad support. Neither Schwarzenegger nor Brown is a de Gaulle, but they help give us hope for what leadership can do in greatly improving the way this republic works without, as the French did, tearing up a constitution and starting from scratch.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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12 comments on “Overcoming Political Immobility

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    It occurs to me that the Tea Party, aside from being retrograde delusional obstructionists, did accomplish one beneficial thing in their quest to bring medieval feudalism back into vogue…they made such a big deal out of the birth certificate issue that Ted Cruz and Arnold Schwarzenegger are unlikely to ever achieve a successful shot at the Presidency.

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      By the way, there really is a sign of hope on the horizon – Bernie Sanders may run for President. Now if we could just get the Tea Party to support Hillary Clinton…oh well, I’m just a hopeless optimist.

  2. Regan Straley on said:

    I’m no fan of the Tea Party, but why does this article not assign at least equal responsibility for America’s demise to neoliberal corporate statism? You can’t blame the Tea Party for this http://www.reuters.com/investigates/pentagon/#article/part2

    • Regan, with respect, a short critique like Mr. Pillar’s usually focus on a single point or issue. Surely, the links you cite are important, no one can cover everything in a short piece.

      • Regan Straley on said:

        I don’t expect him to cover everything in a short piece, or even the issue addressed by my link. My point is that it’s dishonest and propagandistic to lay all the blame for the destruction of American democracy on one political faction when any objective observer can see the responsibility lies with the entire corporate-state establishment, be it Democrat or Republican, neoliberal or neoconservative. We get essentially the same elitist, anti-democratic policies. This article is clearly just a partisan hack job that really isn’t interested in arriving at the truth.

  3. I think everyone pretty much understands what you are saying, but the tea party really is the straw that will break the camel’s back if it gets its way. Now, one could argue better now than later. We are already over the dam; we just haven’t hit the bottom yet.

  4. I have to respectfully disagree with the conclusion that the state has been more functional because of, so called, moderation and reaching across the aisle. Actually the redistricting made it possible for the Democrats to capture more that two thirds of both houses of the legislature. That made it possible for the Dems to govern without the GOP constantly obstructing, as they did in the past 15 years. ( California requires the raising of revenue to be approved by a two thirds vote. In the recent past it was also two thirds for the passage of a budget, but that requirement has been recently reduced to 55%.)

    The California GOP is pretty much off the deep end, and at the state level specialized in preventing governance, as they continue to do now in DC. Take Issa, McCarthy, McKeon, et al, for example. California agriculture needs the Farm bill to be passed in the house but California tea partiers refuse to budge. Same with comprehensive immigration reform. The California Farm Bureau is lobbying for it, but it appears that the Farm Bureau has lost its influence over the tea party.

  5. Frances in California on said:

    Schwarzenegger didn’t do any favors for California, hastening the Privatization of UC, allowing Big Agra to destroy the Delta Salmon population. Don’t forget that car-thief Darrell Issa is a CA Republican.

  6. Robyn Ryan on said:

    Step back a little further – to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. With Ted Cruz as Robespierre. Sarah Palin as Charlotte Corday and John Boehner as Marat.