Sire, the People Are Revolting!

In the shiver-looking-for-a-spine department, the Boston Globe reports (paywall) that “two dozen of the nation’s top political scientists” held an October confab in California, fancying themselves “modern-day writers of the Constitution” anointed to rescue the republic from “an explosion in campaign money, the rise of political factions, and politically motivated redistricting,” all of which has induced a “democratic deficit.” Based on the admittedly limited scope of the Globe’s reporting on the meeting, the idea of a democratic surplus, a likelier suspect, seems not to have occurred to them.

The Globe’s report is the culmination of its “Broken City” series, an often incisive assessment of Washington dysfunction. The implication of the Globe’s denouement—though framed prudently as a question—is that the causes of gridlock and acrimony are systemic: politicized redistricting, the equality of states in the Senate and so forth.

But it is unclear how exactly systems are to blame here. Indeed, it is not even clear that all the crises the Globe identifies count as problems. Gridlock and low legislative productivity are perennial objects of journalistic handwringing, but there is no inherent reason to desire a high volume of policymaking and ample reasons to prefer a better quality of deliberation instead. The two do not necessarily go together. The volume of policymaking ought to be proportional to the need, and the persistence and breadth of public support, for it—not to an arbitrary standard that assumes more is somehow better. The Globe also laments what it calls “one of the most disturbing trends in US politics”: “shrinking voter turnout.” Why this is, of itself, disturbing is unclear. To the extent ignorance is rational, non-voting is responsible.

What is even less clear is how the “system”—the temptation to impute the consequences of individual behavior to faceless systems is as seductively misdirecting in politics as in other affairs—is to blame for all this. Partisan redistricting certainly has not helped with polarization over the last two decades, but the Senate, which cannot be gerrymandered, has experienced comparable divisiveness over the same period. Similarly, the equality of states in the Senate—while it can be assailed, as Madison assailed it, on grounds of majority rule—cannot be blamed for gridlock or polarization unless it can be shown that residents of small states are inherently prone to extremities or intrinsically resistant to compromise, a hypothesis for which the Globe offers no support.

To the extent there are systemic explanations for the woes the Globe identifies, they may ensue from excesses of legislating and democracy, not the opposite. It is the sheer volume of legislating, not a dearth of it, that allows members of Congress to cast “free” votes for which they know they cannot possibly be held accountable because voters simply cannot take all of them into account.  Campaign money cannot corrupt without complexity to abet it.

It is certainly true, as Jane Mansbridge suggests in the Globe piece, that the separation of powers now contributes to gridlock rather than negotiation.  It does not follow (and Mansbridge does not, in fairness, suggest) that the separation of powers is therefore a faulty device. Before reviving the long-discredited theses of James MacGregor Burns and Robert Dahl on this topic, we might consider a simpler—and actually proven—hypothesis: Washington is polarized because we are.

The failure to pass legislation reflects an absence of sustained consensus—and it is sustained majorities, not supermajorities, that the Madisonian system requires for legislating—that in turn indicates deep divisions among the people about basic issues. To be sure, this may not be all bad. One person’s polarization is another’s clarity: Some of the choices are fundamental and will have to give one way or another. But polarization to the extent of paralysis on issues that do need to be resolved reflects, in a deeper sense, a public flight from reality and responsibility—a refusal to make hard choices or an acceptance of false ones, a rejection of the Burkean spirit of incremental accommodation. This is, in the anonymity of the political sphere, easy for voters to do. (My first job in politics was opening and sorting mail in a Senate office, which I performed, I might add, with exceeding skill. One reads a certain volume of bile in that job before realizing there are not that many crazy people in the world: The anonymity of the political realm simply brings out traits in individuals that they would never display in the accountable interactions of their personal lives.)

But the Globe offers no consideration of the possibility that the people themselves might share some responsibility for the “broken” state of affairs the newspaper laments. (In Washington—and in journalism especially—everyone gets criticized except the people who drop the quarters in the newspaper boxes.) What the Globe, and the political scientists it quotes, instead offer are the requisite paeans to the people evident in the fact that every solution they consider entails an expansion of democracy. (“The solutions being discussed in various quarters all aim to resurrect the best intentions of the democratic system, giving more voice to the average citizen …”)

Is it not possible that the average citizen helped us into this mess? At the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Patrick Henry famously accused Madison of having failed to account for virtue. Madison replied: “[I] go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure.”  This is the virtue the moment demands—the capacity to elect legislators of virtue and wisdom and, crucially, to give them more, not less, space to govern. If we lack it, the wretched situation that results is the fault of our system no more than of our stars.

Reader Discussion

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on December 10, 2013 at 10:46:39 am

Personally, I prefer as little legislation as possible and I think it should be aged like a good red wine (kind of Burkean, don't you think?).

In fact, I always thought that deliberation (delay?) was the point behind the whole business - not some democratic plebiscite.
As much as I dislike Henry's polemics during the Virginia Ratifying convention, he did kind of hit it on the head with respect to virtue. Regrettably, I just don't see us ever finding that level of virtue in the modern US.
Oh well, I guess i will try some good red wine (aged deliberately, of course).

take care

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on December 10, 2013 at 11:43:46 am


Henry is one of my favorite Virginians--so we may at last have found a place where our views diverge :) As an aside, Jon Kukla is writing what should be a definitive biography of the man. I think Mayer's SON OF THUNDER misinterprets Henry's later career--the biography I think gets Henry right is the two volume one written by Robert Douthat Meade in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most political theorists, it seems to me, misinterpret the man--there is an easy narrative that valorizes Madison. But if you want your narrative to be dramatic, that means that you have to have antagonists as well as protagonists, and a rising line of dramatic tension that gets nicely resolved in a climactic finish. As you might imagine, the framing and ratification of the Constitution easily adapts to that kind of dramatic structure. So people tend to slot Henry in as one of the arch-villains.

Just my quick .02 :)

All best,

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on December 10, 2013 at 12:29:50 pm


Good points - and yes, my impression of Henry comes from Maier.
Madison, on the other hand, engenders many diverse opinions, at least in me, brilliant, shrewd, insightful - but also in some sense given to the "campaign promises" so prevalent among both current and historical political figures.
When i have the chance, I will do a wee bit more reading on Henry.
And thanks for the info.

take care

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