11/22/2011 05:29 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2012

The Super Committee, Austerity, Stimulus, and Compromise: the Collapse of American Politics

How deeply do you want to plumb the depths of the collapse of the super committee?

On the surface, it was a lousy idea in the first place, a sign that the institutions of government couldn't function. You have a president and a Congress that have a constitutional duty to make these decisions, not delegate them to a group explicitly divided on partisan lines.

On the next level, Washington's paralysis seems to be purely partisan, with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate at each other's throats. Not a good thing, but a decision ultimately made by voters who gave us a Republican majority in one House, and a Democratic majority in the other. It's far from ideal, but it's a choice made in a democracy.

On the next level there's actually a profound intellectual and moral debate going on. The Democrats, or most of them, are disciples of the Keynes/Stimulus/Government's The Answer vision of the world. The Republicans, all of them (and that's the rub) are disciples of the Hayek/ Austerity/Governments' The Enemy vision of the world. Put aside who you think is right, this is a deep and important debate, and the country seems to hold both views at the same time. In a democracy, a good thing to have the debate, but dangerous in that the system is not designed to choose between incompatible absolutes.

And on the final level, the other factors have combined to destroy informal principles of democratic government that previously made the system work. From the inception of our Constitutional system, we have depended on the willingness of the political class to compromise, to accept some things that it didn't like in order to achieve things it wanted. We remember the great compromises of years past as essential to our successes, including the big state/small state compromise in the Constitution, the strengthening of the Federal Government in response to the Depression, and the Civil Rights Era laws that ended legal segregation. Our major failures came when we couldn't find ways to bridge substantial gaps in conflicting ideologies, be it the Civil War, foreign military adventures, or our current debacle.

Without compromise, the legislative process and democracy itself falter. In a nation so diverse, there will rarely be an issue that doesn't divide our people and our political class. So it is with the austerity/stimulus conflict. And it is through that prism that the failure of the super committee and the failure of the Congress become intolerable, tragic and truly dangerous. And it is through that prism that blame can be apportioned.

Democrats, the avatars of health care, education, and Social Security, signaled early on their willingness to agree to essential elements of the austerity agenda, deep cuts in these services. They anticipated some sort of similar response. They didn't get it. In the end the Republican Party's allegiance to a particular set of economic principles outweighed its allegiance to the necessity of compromise in a democracy. Republicans see the need to restructure the Federal Government as so important that it embraced stalemate and paralysis as the means to that end.

Democracy is frail. The Republican tactic of refusing to compromise is causing profound distortions, profound dangers to American democracy, and wounded to the public's confidence in elective democracy as a way to address social and economic distress. These problems challenge the survival of elective democracy. Europe's response is to embrace "technocrats", whatever that means. What's next? European-style "technocrats" (whatever that means)? Huey Long? A strongman?