Why does America so often play catch-up?
The problem, I submit, is America’s system of government.
The separation of powers, which ensures that no single part of the government can ever achieve unified control of the policymaking process, has been a blessing and a curse. It prevents tyranny but creates veto points for politicians who, for whatever reason, wish to stop federal solutions to long-term challenges. Opponents driven by the desire to defend the status quo can always find different bases in the government from which to pursue their agenda and block forward-looking legislation.
Even when there is substantial majority support for tackling big problems, such as gun violence and climate change today, political minorities who disagree with their neighbors can count on the system to help them. There are a lot more people in California (where climate legislation is popular) than West Virginia (where the coal industry still dominates government), but both states send two representatives to the U.S. Senate. Smaller, rural states—whose residents may be less likely to endorse regulation of industry— are disproportionately powerful in the Electoral College.
Not only is the American government separated and fragmented, but private interest groups hold tremendous sway. Through lobbying and campaign contributions, outside actors like the Koch brothers can make it painful for politicians to support beneficial, even popular policies—including climate change regulation— that would hurt their private interests. When President Carter pushed for a bold energy conservation program in the late 1970s, he ran directly into fossil fuel industry representatives who had little appetite for what he was selling.
Read: Gadgets for the climate hellscape
American anti-intellectualism stands in the way of change, too. The historian Richard Hofstadter famously accused Americans of harboring “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it.” The cultural suspicion of expertise has only become worse since 1963, when Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life; politicians now, including the president, feel no shame at all about dismissing expert opinion.
Perhaps as influential as anti-intellectualism is anti-statism: the resistance to strong government, and accompanying confidence in the private marketplace, which hampers lawmakers’ ability to mobilize support for the large-scale regulations or programs needed to tackle big challenges.
One last obstacle is American Exceptionalism—the notion that the U.S. is immune from the same kinds of problems that face other comparable countries. There is a misplaced sense of confidence that the scariest predictions just won’t come to pass here; the U.S. will always find a way to avoid the disasters other nations face. Somehow America’s scientists and business leaders will figure a way out. The belief in American Exceptionalism also pushes many American leaders to resist the kind of international agreements—such as the Kyoto Pact on Global Warming and the Paris Climate Agreement—that are the path to real progress. Those who feel that America is different and superior than the rest of the world are reluctant to concede that it can’t do whatever it wants, on its own.