The true separation of powers in modern America


Nowhere in Europe are universities as central to national life as in the United States. Time-hogging is part of it: four rather than mostly three years, two as opposed to one for graduates. Then there’s the mess with professional sports. 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’s natural for Americans to stamp their alma mater on cars and cappuccinos.

It’s also natural that they would curse those in the academy cleaning. When Allan Bloom wrote about capturing the education left in The Closure of the American Mind, his thesis was new. Thirty-four years later, even liberal teachers, persecuted by students for whom liberalism is not enough, question whether it has gone far enough. The first agitations of a fight are in the air. It is difficult to know whether to animate or fear the perverse consequences.

America has reached a strange kind of balance. The left enjoys a culture-rooted supremacy that embraces university, publishing, Hollywood, corporate PR and, deformed republicans diceria, social network. There is no printed equivalent of British tabloids to compensate for the hegemony. Whether or not the left has planned this march through the institutions, the resulting monoculture has dissatisfaction beyond the registered Republicans who turn to Fox News. Joe Rogan’s large podcast presence, which deals with something closer to libertarianism, is proof of this.

The temptation here is to concede the right image as underdogs. But then we turn to his exorbitant privilege. With its bias toward small states, the Senate gives Republicans power beyond their share of raw votes. The electoral college does the same thing in presidential competitions. The control of a third party rests on these two institutions: the judiciary. Three of the nine Supreme Court judges were presented by a president which lost the popular vote, and was confirmed by a Senate where 600,000 Wyoming souls weigh as much as 40m from California. Even before the gerrymandering and filibuster of the Senate, Republicans took advantage of the counter-majority rules of the game. As a consolation for the lack of tenured professors, it’s not bad.

None of these benefits are innate or illegitimate. It’s up to the Democrats to win over smaller states. It’s up to Republicans to take institutions that make time as serious as Washington. The result is the same, however: a wide range of ingrained privileges, each deepening over time.

It’s hard to say which part has the best deal. In fact, politics is well downstream of culture. In a country that supports same-sex marriage by more than one two to one, for example, even a right-wing Congress could not outlaw it. In other areas, however, Republicans are able to replicate the public will to a formidable degree. Polls suggest voters want to raise taxes on the rich. The Senate has more often done the opposite in recent years. Normative pressure is worth only so much against hard votes.

If there is no clear winner from the current system, the question is whether to do something about it. At mixed reception, the right implements its social media channels. A challenge to the critical theory of race in universities and the media is growing. All the while, some Democrats want it change the filibuster, which requires many bills to win a super-majority of the Senate. Demands for Supreme Court reform and scruples about the electoral college are both audible in a party that feels snookered by the rules.

The impatience of either party with the current agreements is forgivable. If only the change was not so full of unexpected results.

It may be that what holds together a shattered America is that neither the red nor the blue half has ever commanded totality. Republicans can lose elections well and even exercise blocking power. Six months after work, President Joe Biden legislative gains they are getting fitter. At the same time, the left in the United States may be out of office and still guide the norms, tastes, and even the language of the nation and, to an astonishing extent, of the world. In his own words, each of these compensations is hard to excuse. Together, they add to a viable pond.

In a sense, America benefits from a separation of powers that is deeper than that codified by its founders. It is that between politics and culture; between formal and informal influence. One party has advantages in “own” politics. The other manages to put the atmosphere where it takes place. That this is a kind of ill-fated peace does not mean that there are better ones available.

janan.ganesh@ft.com



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