Editor's note: This is one in a series of CNN Opinion articles on the question, "Why is our government so broken?" William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- There is a popular misconception in politics today that the American political system is broken because Washington can't accomplish anything meaningful. This is not true. The system is working entirely as intended -- bumps, bruises, and all.
One must not confuse broken government with slow government. Washington is stalled. It's being pulled in opposite directions by competing visions of government. In 2008, the American people elected a liberal president, House and Senate. What resulted was anything but gridlock. Democrats passed an unprecedented stimulus package, Obama Care, and the Frank-Dodd bill. In 2010, the country revolted, swung back to the right and elected a conservative House, the likes of which has not been seen before.
As a result, we are in the midst of a serious philosophical battle over the future of this country -- a battle between a small, limited government system and a big government entitlement state. The nature of our Constitution requires that the American people decide the direction of this country, not Washington. And until the American people decide, there will be arguments, division and gridlock.
Our country does not undergo dramatic changes in political philosophy, for better or for worse, overnight. It is a slow, painful process and has been throughout our history. Our Founding Fathers foresaw this.
In Federalist No. 10 James Madison wrote, "The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man. ... A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power ... have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good."
For this reason, the Founders constructed a democratic republic that requires national dialogue in order to form consensus on crucial issues. At stake today are two serious debates: one over a nationalized health care system that will fundamentally change the direction of this country, and a second over record levels of government spending sure to redraw our political landscape for many years to come.
The arena for that debate is not always pretty and the results are not always good, but the American people get it right over time. As Charles Krauthammer recently wrote, "This is the future of government-worker power and the solvency of the states. It deserves big, serious, animated public debate."
Much of the ire of this debate is directed at the tea party, a grass-roots conservative populace whose arrival has put a restraining order on Washington's spending and growth. Since the historic Republican victories in the 2010 elections, the tea party and Democrats have locked horns over every major policy decision, from taxes to spending to health care.
Critics of the tea party lay the blame on them as the do-nothing obstructionists. But unlike the events we saw in Madison, Wisconsin, the tea party has slowed and even reversed the course of Washington all within the bounds of the political system. Other critics of the tea party have gone so far as to label their resistance to President Obama's agenda as racist, most recently actor Morgan Freeman. Those accusations do nothing to help improve the national debate and "fix" Washington. It is odd, too, when the tea party just helped Herman Cain surge to victory in Florida's latest straw poll.
Moreover, there are steps that both parties can take to improve the status quo in Washington. Bipartisan agreements are on the table, such as free trade agreements and corporate tax reform, which can, and should, be passed. But the real debate over spending, entitlement reform and health care will not be settled anytime soon.
Without this debate, which is sure to get uglier and nastier, we wouldn't be having a national discussion about the long-term sustainability of ballooning entitlements. We wouldn't recognize the crisis of our exploding federal deficit. And we wouldn't acknowledge the need for fiscal restraint and responsibility.
Don't mistake broken government for the growing pains of a democratic republic. In the end, a slow, restrained government is a more thoughtful, careful, and hopefully good, government.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.