The widespread public angst that surfaced in the 2016 presidential election revealed how many Americans believe their government has become badly broken. Given the serious problems that continue to persist in society—crime, illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, discrimination, to name a few—widespread beliefs in a governmental breakdown are understandable. Yet such a breakdown is actually far from self-evident. In this paper, I explain how diagnoses of governmental performance depend on the perspective from which current conditions in the country are viewed. Certainly when judged against a standard of perfection, America has a long way to go. But perfection is no meaningful basis upon which to conclude that government has broken down. I offer and assess three alternative, more realistic benchmarks of government’s performance: (1) reliance on a standard of acceptable imperfection; (2) comparisons with other countries or time periods; and (3) the use of counterfactual inferences. Viewed from these perspectives, the notion of an irreparable governmental failure in the United States becomes quite questionable. Although serious economic and social shortcomings certainly exist, the nation’s strong economy and steadily improving living conditions in recent decades simply could not have occurred if government were not functioning well. Rather than embracing despair and giving in to cynicism and resignation, citizens and their leaders would do better to treat the nation’s problems as conditions of disrepair needing continued democratic engagement. It remains possible to achieve greater justice and better economic and social conditions for all—but only if we, the people, do not give up on the pursuit of these goals.
Coglianese, Cary, "Is Government Really Broken?" (2016). Faculty Scholarship. 1695.