The U.S. Capitol building. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

The revolt that brought down Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was rooted in the Republican right’s frustration that the House, under Boehner, has failed to keep its promises. It has not abolished Obamacare, defunded Planned Parenthood or advanced many kindred right-wing causes.

Yet the same Republican right all but fetishizes the Constitution (except when seeking to narrow its guarantee of rights by, for instance, repealing birthright citizenship). The Constitution, conservatives frequently assert, has provided us with a form of government superior to those of other nations, even other democracies.

Problem is, you can’t blame Boehner for failing to overturn Obamacare and hold the Constitution blameless. By vesting lawmaking (or law-repealing, or bill-vetoing) power in a president, a House and a Senate, all elected independently, the Founders fragmented power in ways that might work in times of national consensus but don’t work at all when the nation, or even just its elected officials, are as divided as they are today.

Under the kind of presidential system with which the Founders saddled us, the stars have to be uncommonly aligned if we’re to make significant changes to public policy. If, as is the case today, our political parties are ideologically distinct with few areas of overlap, then one party has to control the White House, House and Senate (and have a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, though that’s a creation of Senate rules and not the Constitution) to get anything done. That seldom happens: In only eight of the past 34 years has the same party held sway in both legislative chambers and the White House, and in only a few of those months (in 2009 and early 2010) during all that time did one party have a president, a majority in the House and a Senate supermajority.

Nations in which the president and the legislature have separate but equal claims to power and legitimacy have a bias for crisis. A government divided between a president of one party and a Congress of another may reach an impasse for which, as political scientist Juan Linz has written, “There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved.” Not surprisingly, nations with presidential systems rather than parliamentary ones are more prone to military takeovers. Indeed, as Linz documented, the United States is the sole presidential-system nation to have avoided this, chiefly due to “the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties.” But Linz, as you may have guessed, wrote that back in the day — 1990 — when the parties were still, as he says, diffuse. Today’s Republicans may be obtuse, but diffuse they’re not.

We are not, happily, on the verge of a military takeover, but the extremes to which the Republican right has been willing to go to get around the constitutional impediments to its desires are drastic nonetheless: shutting down the government and threatening the government’s credit. The shutdown threat is back again, with right-wingers vowing not to fund the government come December unless Planned Parenthood is defunded, which President Obama is plainly unwilling to do. Americans clearly oppose this GOP brinkmanship: A Quinnipiac poll this week showed 69 percent opposition (and 56 percent among Republicans) to shutting down the government over funding for Planned Parenthood. A Pew Research Center poll this week showed 60 percent support, against 32 percent opposition, for government funding of the group.

The lack of support for the right’s position reflects another oddity of our constitutional system: the disproportionate power vested in winners of low-turnout midterm elections, which tend to advantage conservatives. Presidents are invariably elected by a far larger and more representative slice of the public than members of Congress who win their seats in midterm contests. Since 1984, turnout in presidential elections has ranged from 49 to 57 percent of eligible adults; since 1986, turnout in midterms has ranged from 36 to 39 percent.

Moving beyond a government characterized by a Linzian standoff is no simple task: The president, House and Senate are hardwired into our system. The most plausible reform — which still would meet ferocious GOP resistance — would be to make the president, representatives and senators elected by and accountable to the same, more representative electorate by amending the Constitution to give them all coterminous four-year terms. That would produce a government both more effective and more legitimate (particularly if we can also diminish the sway of big money over our politics), and might even rekindle Americans’ belief that democracy is good not just in theory but in practice, too. It’s when governments can’t act that nongovernmental charlatans like Donald Trump arise and leaders like John Boehner are blamed for dysfunctions inherent in our system.

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