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Democracy Is Endangered More by the Size of Government Than by Republicans

In an op-ed in the New York Times, two Harvard political scientist professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have sounded the alarm about democracy in America. It is in danger they say mostly because democratic institutions are no longer backed up by the “guardrails of democracy”—deep norms of “partisan self-restraint and fair play.” Sadly, their analysis of the decline of these norms is itself both partisan and shallow. It is partisan because they note only Republican breaches of such norms, when Democrats have engaged in breaches as well. Its shallowness in turn comes from their partisanship. They blame a particular political party rather changes in the nature of our polity, like the growth in the power of government and decline of federalism.

The partisanship of Levitsky and Ziblatt is striking. They claim that one of the informal norms is that legislative votes about matters of “extraordinary importance,” like impeachments, be bipartisan and Clinton’s impeachment by Republicans was not. But the only previous impeachment of the President—that of Andrew Johnson—was also a party-line vote. The norm that creating new entitlements—also actions of extraordinary importance—should be bipartisan, however, is a much more established one: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid all had bipartisan support. Yet President Obama enacted the Affordable Care Act without the support of even one moderate Republican such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine.

These Harvard professors decry the failure to vote on Merrick Garland, which they characterize in hyperbolic terms as “stealing” a Supreme Court seat. But, as Ed Whelan has shown, it is rare for a Senate controlled by the opposing party to confirm a justice when the vacancy occurs in the last year of a President’s term and Obama’s own counsel said she would have recommended the same strategy had the roles been reversed. And Levitsky and Ziblatt’s argument that the Senate has otherwise deferred to the President’s choices “within reason” depends on their ideological judgment that rejecting Robert Bork, one of the most distinguished law professors of his era, was reasonable.

Finally, while worrying about what they believe will be the likely executive excesses of President Trump, they do not even mention any excesses of President Obama, such as his order granting millions of illegal aliens work permits because he could not get his preferred legislation on immigration through Congress.

The message of the op-ed, in short, is that democracy is in danger because of Republicans. But surely political scientists should consider deeper explanations than that. In my view, the norms of bipartisanship they describe have weakened as our government has become larger, more executive in nature, and less decentralized. Under those circumstances, the prizes for controlling the national government and particularly the presidency become greater, and thus the partisan temptations to play hardball harder to resist. Winner-take-all government makes for win-at-all-costs politics. If the federal government can remake health care, citizens will naturally think of politics as more of a life-and-death issue. If the Supreme Court can determine new rules of national morality, there will be a culture war over its composition.

Another of the “guardrails of democracy” has historically been our universities. They help make future leaders of society more dispassionate and less partisan and provide more profound analysis of society’s problems than politicians can offer. Sadly today, as this op-ed shows, our universities are so dominated by one party and employ so many reflexive partisans of that party, that they can no longer perform their own essential democratic function.

Reader Discussion

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on December 19, 2016 at 11:21:44 am

The title thesis--that Democracy is threatened by the size of government--hardly encompasses McGinnis's argument. But I'm inspired to respond to the title.

Generally I regard the burden of most conservative/libertarian politics as promoting laissez-faire policies. (Yes, we can each identify exceptions to the rule...) In contrast, I regard the predominant burden of liberal/progressive politics as promoting change. The archetypical example would be the abolition of slavery, whereby a mostly outside "elite," likely representing the views of the majority, imposed its policy preferences on a minority--slave owners--while denigrating both property rights and tradition.

If you value doing things such as freeing slaves, then you want a relatively activist government. If you don't, then you want a relatively passive government. And inevitably, a person's preferences will depend on what interests they perceive to be at stake. As McGinnis observes, if government addresses health care, more people are likely to take an interest in government. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that we need certain social norms to prevail, even when there is a lot at stake. McGinnis argues that the remedy should be to have less at stake. What's the solution for concussions in the NFL? Levitsky and Ziblatt would argue for better helmets, and for making and enforcing rules against certain kinds of hits. McGinnis would argue for reducing the incentives for winning football games. It's a perspective.

Two observations.

1. People don't know, and thus can't appropriately evaluate, everything government does.

Slavery was a very public issue, and government's policies regarding slavery were widely known. But today, government address a zillion issues. Many of them people don't know about or have much opinion about. Thus, it's easy to get people to say that they think government is too big in the abstract; pretty much nobody can understand it all. But by the same token, I expect you might get people to say that commercial aircraft are too complicated, too. As Dilbert's boss observed, if I don't understand it, then it can't be very important, can it?

This came to mind as I was discussing school vouchers with a member of my local school board. She observed that today's schools are enormous social service engines, with massive cross-subsidies. For example, we not only educate autistic kids, we have a two-year post-graduation program to help them transition out of academia and into the larger world. Few people are aware of these programs--in part out of an effort to avoid stigmatizing the students involved.

Now, we can say we value or don't value such programs. But it's hard to do so unless we know that such programs exist. And liberals are more likely to favor such programs. And we all have limited attention spans.

So this lends some support for the thesis that (1) liberals favor larger, more activist government and (2) most people (including liberals) will be unable to appreciate everything that government does.

2. It is far from clear that the most recent election reflects a preference for laissez faire policies. Rather, the most recent election seems to favor activist populist policies--building physical walls, adopting protectionist policies, intervening in the decisions of individual firms, investing heavily in infrastructure, etc. In short, the public seems to be in the mood for bigger, more activist government.

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nobody.really
on December 19, 2016 at 11:35:16 am

" In short, the public seems to be in the mood for bigger, more activist government."

Goodness gracious, you ARE hilarious! A wordsmith of the first order.

Why not simply argue that since the Public wants the government to get the government off of our backs that this is proof that the Public wants a more activist government.

Yep, viewed through the lense embedded in a certain *type* everything reduces down to an activist government.

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gabe
on December 19, 2016 at 12:59:37 pm

" People don’t know, and thus can’t appropriately evaluate, everything government does."

BTW: On behalf of the good Professor McGinnis, we wish to thank nobody.really, or in particular, for supporting McGinnis' thesis that big(ger) government is a greater threat to liberty...."

Apparently. nobody really believes that a hallmark, a positive attribute of ever larger government intrusion into the lives of the citizenry is that government does so much that the average "attention span limited" person is unable to know or understand all that government does *FOR* these same citizens.

Is that not the essence of McGinnis' argument and the consequences that follow from an overly "engaged" government - as the citizen cannot be expected to know, or in many instances, even imagine, what the government is up to, ought it not to follow that the government may very well be doing that which it ought not to do and / or that its institutions may very well be seeking to advance its own ends and objectives rather than that of the citizens it is putatively established to serve? - or even in contradiction of the citizens expressed desires?

So to nobody really many thanks for advancing McGinnis' argument. I suppose since it is the Christmas season, nobody really wanted to offer a gift to our readers.

Graciously accepted!

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gabe
on December 19, 2016 at 13:03:24 pm

Oops - forgot this:

I. too, am in the Christmas spirit and will offer this gift on the many things the government does about which the average citizen is unaware:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/12/19/title-ix-federal-bureacracy-campuses-glenn-reynolds-column/95585446/

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gabe
on December 19, 2016 at 15:30:28 pm

If you value doing things such as freeing slaves, then you want a relatively activist government. If you don’t, then you want a relatively passive government.

So the Fugitive Slave Act wasn't an act of government?

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z9z99
on December 19, 2016 at 15:38:17 pm

Z:

Luvv'd it!!!!!

Once again the seemingly *rational* voice is not quite rational!

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gabe
on December 20, 2016 at 03:01:01 am

Good point. So when I said that I generally regard the burden of most conservative/libertarian politics as promoting laissez-faire policies, while progressives value activist government, I should have said that we can each identify exceptions to the rule.

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nobody.really

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