5 > 4, but 59 < 41

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Fifty-nine senators, representing (as explained here) some 63 percent of the American public, accompanied by a large House majority and a president recently elected with 70 million votes, cannot enact changes in the nation's health-care system that have been debated for decades.
A 59-41 margin is not enough for a change of this magnitude.

Five Justices of the Supreme Court, outvoting their four colleagues, can work a fundamental change in election law that goes far beyond the issues presented by the parties to the case. (Among many accounts, see these two on Slate, here and here, and National Journal here.) Courts always have the option of deciding cases narrowly or broadly. The breadth of this one, reaching far beyond the merits of the case so as to enact the majority Justices' views, is staggering even to a non-lawyer like me. A one-person margin* is enough for a change of this magnitude.

In the least accountable branch of government, the narrowest margin prevails; in our elected legislative branch, substantial majorities are neutered. My current article strikes a somewhat optimistic tone, in concluding that the only truly broken part of our country is its system of government. (Everyone on Earth would like to imitate America's universities. No one is copying our current governmental machinery.) But that brokenness will require some creativity to repair, and soon.
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* Yes, by definition a nine-member Supreme Court will end up making some 5-4 decisions. But it is impressive how many Big cases, from Marbury v Madison (5-0) to Brown v Board of Education (9-0) to NY Times v Sullivan (9-0) to  United States v Nixon (8-0), have not been cliffhangers -- and how disturbing and friction-engendering a one-vote decision can be when, as in this case, it seems to turn not on any change in real-world circumstances but simply on who now sits on the court. For another time: how John Roberts' "Hey, I'm just here as a neutral umpire, to call balls and strikes" confirmation testimony in 2005 would seem if viewed again today.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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