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The System Is … Working?
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The System Is … Working?

Sort of.

Members of Arizona for Abortion Access, the ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the Arizona State Constitution, demonstrate for abortion rights at the state House of Representatives on April 17, 2024, in Phoenix. (Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)


I was taken aback when one of my colleagues posted that Wednesday evening in the Dispatch Slack channel, and not just because you don’t see all-caps used in that forum every day. (Except when I’m in a froth about Trump. Which, come to think of it, is every day.) It stopped me in my tracks because it’s not a sentiment one hears anymore about our political system.

Ever. Anywhere.

We live in a country where those who say America is headed in the wrong direction have greatly outnumbered those who say otherwise for the past 15 years. Popular belief that the “system” isn’t working is so broad and deep among American voters that their own representatives are prone to making dark jokes about it. A few days ago, frustrated by the looming passage of new military aid for Israel, Bernie Sanders mocked his colleagues in the Senate for the fact that its approval rating had risen recently from 10 percent to a gaudy 14. “The Congress is completely out of touch with where the American people are,” he claimed, exaggerating a bit—but only a bit.

As I write this, an attorney is arguing with a straight face before the U.S. Supreme Court that, absent impeachment, a president should be able to have a political rival assassinated or order the military to organize a coup without fear of criminal prosecution. That attorney’s client is currently the favorite to win the coming election in national polling.

No system that would elevate Donald Trump to the presidency once, let alone twice, is “working.” 

Yet, having said all that, I think my colleague was correct.

That’s because the comment in question wasn’t made about “the system” generally, it was made specifically about the state of abortion politics in the United States. And you know what?

The system is working with respect to abortion.

It’s a truism that, in a democracy, the majority is supposed to get its way most of the time.

Truisms aren’t supposed to be controversial, but that one is.

Both sides agree with it in principle but out the window it goes whenever a popular bill offered by the opposing party hits the floor in Congress. For all the caterwauling Democrats have done under Biden about eliminating the filibuster, we know exactly what they’ll do next year if a Republican-controlled Senate proposes, say, the mass deportation of all illegal immigrants.

The fact that a majority of Americans now favor mass deportation will be neither here nor there.

Flouting the will of the majority is a both-sides thing but the two sides aren’t equally motivated to do it, as one might expect when one party reliably loses the popular vote in national presidential elections. The GOP has a more “complicated” relationship with the justness of majority rule nowadays than Democrats do, which is why one occasionally hears Republicans insisting that “we’re a republic, not a democracy” when we are in fact, and quite obviously, both.

“We’re a republic, not a democracy” is their way of asserting that America’s system of government has no obligation —certainly not legally or politically, and not even morally—to carry out the will of the majority. A representative’s duties are to his constituents; if those constituents want him to use every lever of power available to him to thwart the majority unto eternity, that’s what he should do.

The consequences for public faith in the American government be damned.

It’s no coincidence that “we’re a republic, not a democracy” gained traction as a talking point around the time of the 2020 election, when even (what passes for) august members of the GOP pushed the idea. Convince yourself that the majority isn’t morally entitled to get its way on legislation—ever—and soon you’ll be convincing yourself that it isn’t morally entitled to get its way in elections, either.

A democracy beset by that attitude can’t last. When a system that purports to govern in accordance with the will of the many (subject to constitutional limitations) normalizes obstruction by the few, the many are destined to wonder what they’re getting out of it and why they should stick with it. The system isn’t working.

But it is working on the hottest culture-war issue in America.

What inspired my colleague’s Slack comment was the news that Arizona’s House of Representatives had voted to repeal the near-total abortion ban that was enacted there in 1864 and recently restored by the Arizona Supreme Court. Several attempts to overturn the ban had failed in recent weeks but this time three Republican legislators flipped and joined Democrats to pass it narrowly. If the bill clears the state Senate and is signed by the Democratic governor, a middle-ground 15-week abortion ban will replace the old law.

Which is what’s “supposed” to happen, no? Strict abortion bans like the 1864 statute are favored by very few Americans; laws that permit terminations during the first trimester of pregnancy are supported by many. The three Republicans who flipped did so either because they feared being on the wrong side of popular opinion in their next election or because, as a moral matter, they believed the people deserved to be governed by the legal regime they preferred. Whichever it is, the will of the majority prevailed.

“The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations upon it, are to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting,” Justice Alito wrote for the court in the Dobbs decision that reversed Roe v. Wade, quoting Antonin Scalia. “That is what the Constitution and the rule of law demand.”

That’s exactly what’s been happening since 2022. The system is working.

It’s working outside of Arizona, too. Witness the ongoing evolution on the subject of abortion at the top of the Republican Party.

Staunch pro-lifers can and should disdain Donald Trump for trying to wash his hands of the abortion wars, but there’s no question that he’s responding rationally to the political incentives that democracy has created for him. His legacy as the president who got rid of Roe is a major liability for him and that liability would be compounded if he pledged to use federal power to restrict abortions in blue states upon returning to office. So he’s opted to try to neutralize the issue by taking a federalist approach, insisting that the responsibility for making law on this subject properly belongs to the states.

That’s the correct position constitutionally, in my opinion. And it happens to be the position on abortion that’s favored by the national majority, making it the smart play electorally.

And not just for him. Given Trump’s enormous influence over right-wing opinion, his neutrality on the issue frees other politicians in his party to be more responsive to majority preferences on abortion. In Arizona, Kari Lake moved with head-spinning speed to capitalize on Trump’s conversion by coming out against the 1864 ban. In Florida, Rick Scott decided that he preferred the old 15-week ban to the new, and much stricter, six-week one.

Both are now more aligned with majority opinion than they were previously. The system is working.

It’s not working for everyone, of course. Pro-lifers are rightly irritated to see figures like Lake sounding not just like federalists on abortion but like out-and-out pro-choicers. And if the system were working at top efficiency, we’d expect to see Democrats retreating from their preference for legal abortion up until the moment of crowning to something more like a middle-ground, 15-week ban themselves.

Perhaps that’ll come once the dust around strict abortion bans settles. For now, however, it’s enough to note that one party has moved quickly and conspicuously toward popular opinion in a brief period of time on what had been, until recently, a litmus-test of the utmost ideological rigor. That’s the power of democracy in action.

Because Congress is a ludicrous circus, it’s easy to miss the fact that the system has been working there lately too.

Sometimes. Sort of.

I use the term “working” loosely. We’ve seen one House speaker liquidated this term already and may yet see another. Members are using the word “scumbags” in nationally televised interviews to describe colleagues—from the same party.

It’s not great. But if by “working” we mean that American government is overcoming objections from powerful interests to pass laws that reflect the preferences of the majority, then it’s been working OK lately. Not perfectly, but not as bad as popular opinion would have you believe.

The endless stinkface from post-liberal Republicans over aid to Ukraine is a threat to Mike Johnson’s ability to govern long-term, but he has the consolation of knowing that most Americans don’t share their opinion. Fifty-three percent favor more aid to Kyiv at last check and the number is higher if you combine those who think we’re giving “the right amount” with those who believe we’re not doing enough. Johnson’s transformation on the issue seems to have been driven by genuine moral conviction but I’m guessing it wasn’t lost on him—or on Donald Trump—with an election six months away and a slender House majority at risk that he was also doing the popular thing.

Or that, had the GOP blocked the aid and Ukraine’s defense collapsed, some fickle voters who claim that we’re doing too much right now would have swung around with alacrity toward believing that we didn’t do enough.

How about the TikTok ban that passed the House? That was another risky one for Johnson, as both Trump and some of his more influential toadies online have come out against it. But support for a ban (unless the platform is sold to an American company) seems to be growing: Last month a CNBC poll found the public split 47-31 in favor while another survey put the number at 54-32. Once again, the speaker overcame the opposition of powerful populists on his own side to move popular legislation.

The fact that Johnson and his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, were able to easily avoid a government shutdown and a debt-ceiling crisis, respectively, is another example of the system working. It doesn’t work well, admittedly—witness how many times the can was kicked on funding the government before a long-term deal was reached—but a conference as restive and nihilist as the House GOP seemed primed at the start of the term to force a crisis in one or both scenarios.

Didn’t happen. The national majority’s anxiety over brinkmanship forced Republicans to swallow hard and do the right thing against their better judgment. The system worked.

So why is it that so many Americans are convinced the system doesn’t work?

That’s a complicated question but I suspect the answer begins with the fact that government’s failures over the last 25 years have been really big, enough so to make any single legislative vindication of the popular will feel trivial by comparison. 9/11, Iraq, the financial crisis and Great Recession, deindustrialization and the opioid epidemic, a raging pandemic and the expert class’ hapless attempts to manage it, a coup plot and attempted putsch at the Capitol, the collapse of Afghanistan, and most recently a rate of inflation not seen in decades: It’s a lot.

It’s a lot. Congrats to Mike Johnson on the TikTok bill and all, but when the average person imagines what it looks like when democratic government is “working,” I suspect he or she imagines a system that responds nimbly and effectively in solving major problems, not just one that dutifully follows whatever the popular will happens to be on the latest ticky-tack issue at a given moment in time.

The fact that retail politics in America is increasingly conducted online also drives the sense that the system doesn’t work. Those motivated to seek out political engagement are likely to be aggrieved for one reason or another; naturally, they gravitate to political resources that feed that sense of grievance. It wasn’t so easy to find those resources before the Internet. It’s really easy now.

There’s a lot of money to be made in catering to such people and therefore intense competitive pressure not to be outflanked on grievance-mongering—which means there’s no incentive to highlight the system’s successes. Many Americans in 2024 can and do subsist on an endless diet of online propaganda that reassures them their grievances are justified in every particular and that the governing class isn’t merely indifferent to their suffering but is actively scheming to make it worse.

A drumbest of major government failures and a media ecosystem that encourages disaffection and paranoia for fun and profit: That’s a recipe for unshakable suspicion that the system doesn’t work and ultimately civic disaster. Look no further than the fact that an honest-to-goodness buffoon ran for president in 2016 babbling that “the system is rigged” and we actually elected him.

And yet, I think the post-Roe abortion debate has broken through all of this cynicism to some degree. My guess is that most Americans—devout pro-lifers not included—would agree with my Dispatch colleague that the system has been working unusually well on that subject lately.

Partly that’s because everyone already has an opinion about abortion, and typically a firm one. There’s no uncertainty about the issue as there might be with something as complex and unfamiliar as TikTok or the Ukraine war. Americans know the stakes.

Partly it’s because the country tried to “solve” the abortion issue for 50 years by letting the judiciary ride herd on it and in that case the system plainly did not work. The pro-life movement didn’t disappear after the Supreme Court proclaimed from the mountaintop that a right to terminate one’s pregnancy kinda sorta exists in the Constitution. On the contrary. The fact that the issue was “live” politically but “dead” electorally since the early 1970s let both parties dig in on extreme, unworkable positions and left the dispute in perpetual limbo.

And partly it’s because the moral dilemma of when life begins is so intractable that there’s no way to resolve it more elegantly than by letting the public vote it out and having the chips fall where they may. No one cares, or should care, what Chief Justice John Roberts thinks of the matter; the closest we’re going to get to a morally authoritative judgment on the question is the collective wisdom of the great and good American people.

The same American people that elected Donald Trump. And are poised to do so again.

Put all of that together and it feels like the system is working with respect to abortion. The stakes of the public debate are clear, we’re gradually moving toward legislative outcomes that align with majority preferences, and we’re resolving (sort of) a moral dispute that’s bedeviled American politics for generations. In an age as populist as this one, that’s as close as we’ll get to a political solution that’s broadly viewed as legitimate.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.