The politics of drama

High Noon | Universal Pictures

“A moment of great drama” – that’s how Jon Stewart lampooned CNN’s botched reporting of the health care ruling. And thinking about it, drama seems to be a lifeline of American politics.

Forced government shutdowns, debt ceiling brinkmanship, looming fiscal cliffs – lawmakers stagger from one crisis to the next, heroically saving the nation from impending disaster in yet another last-minute showdown between the forces of good and evil.

At first, I found that process quite unnerving. In Germany, if you are looking for real-life drama, you go see a good soccer match. But politics, with a few exceptions, is totally anticlimactic.

Of course, politics have their fair share of rhetoric, both among politicians and among the locals in the pubs. But you mostly write that off as entertainment and posturing and take comfort in the fact that the actual lawmaking is a totally different story.

Most bills are drafted by the executive branch which is dominated by civil servants, not political appointees. It’s a deliberate and slow process. By the time bills are considered in parliament, they have been studied by legal staff, re-written, cross-checked with existing laws, circulated among even remotely involved government departments, and re-written again.

The subsequent deliberations in parliament follow a prescribed procedure. All parties have a chance to influence the bill, but they cannot filibuster it. Every bill will eventually have an up or down vote.

(Mostly, it’s an up vote. The executive, like in many European democracies, is elected by the parliament, so it’s no surprise that the majority in parliament will usually agree with the bills created by the government they put in place.)

And even if not, nothing terrible happens. For example, if the budget is not passed in time for the new fiscal year: There are general rules in place how the government can spend money without a budget, basically by extrapolating on previous year’s budget. There seems to be a general consensus not to do anything unreasonable, like “shutting down” the government.

So Germans have a hard time understanding why the process is so different in the United States. It’s not like America is constantly under siege by natural disasters or foreign enemies. Bills rushed from Congress to the White House by mounted messengers for the president to sign five minutes before a critical midnight deadline are usually not needed to stave off an imminent alien attack.

Most of the “critical” deadlines are entirely self-made. It usually seems a race not against destiny but against Congress’ own laziness.

But more fundamentally, the situation is caused by a system that is set up to be confrontational. Americans (Minnesotans excepted) like being confrontational. You probably need that kind of trait when you start out your republic by telling your king to go to hell.

Confrontation leads to gridlock, which is occasionally overcome by a dramatic showdown. And that’s exactly how the U. S. constitution set it up. Because fundamentally, Americans don’t like being governed (again, the king trauma). The constitution intended not to create the best government in the world but the least government.

For Germans, that’s an alien concept. They not only see government as a matter of necessity for a well-organized society, they also like efficiency. Sending a few hundred well-paid lawmakers to the nation’s capital just to see their efforts dissipated in eternal gridlock would seem a total waste.

Except, of course, for the drama.


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