The End of American Democracy?

Matt Yglesias argues that American democracy is “doomed.” Along with some over-the-top scenarios of military coups and the like, the essay contains sober—and sobering—analysis of our predicament, based on a pretty good survey of the PoliSci literature.

The centerpiece of Yglesias’s analysis is the interplay between presidential government and political polarization—more precisely, partisan and ideological polarization. Under such conditions, Yglesias argues, presidential government can’t work because everyone plays “constitutional hardball.” Needed compromises can’t come about, and the system breaks down.

Sure, Yglesias observes: we had comparable degrees of partisan polarization (as measured by congressional votes) back in the Progressive Era. (Polarization then declined. It reached a low in the 1950 and then began to increase again, gathering speed in the 1980s.) But parties back then were very different beasts—more akin to machines than to today’s ideologically driven, cohesive blocs. Politics was mostly about spoils, not first principles.

Politics became less polarized in later decades because Southern whites ended up in the wrong party, alongside Northern liberals. So the parties overlapped, ideology-wise, and that made politics possible. (The coalition between the GOP and “Blue Dog” Democrats in the early eighties looks in retrospect like the last gasp.) But voters have long sorted themselves right and left, red and blue. Room for compromise politics has disappeared; an “obstructionist” Congress confronts a “lawless” Presidency.

Is there a way out? One scenario—short of the “collapse” picture painted by Yglesias—is a broad, stable coalition that dominates all institutions and crams stuff through. That’s what gave us the Affordable Care Act. But it was a drama; the constellation proved unstable; and few would want to repeat that experiment. Another scenario, envisioned by Ezra Klein’s response to Yglesias, is that we’ll muddle through, principally because the voters don’t really expect much by way of competent governance. Yet another possibility, advocated with characteristic verve and elegance by Jonathan Rauch, is that we’ll figure out a way to make politics less ideological and more transactional. We need less transparency and democracy, and a lot more graft, backroom dealing, and corruption. Go tell that to the Freedom Caucus, and to the Washington Post.

I’m not entirely persuaded by Yglesias’s analysis. For example, it seems to me that the fractured 1912 election was intensely ideological and fought over really big stakes. (It was the last presidential election that was fought explicitly over the Constitution.) Yet somehow the system and, for awhile, actually functioned pretty well. As Yglesias concedes, we may get lucky yet again.

One piece of luck has already arrived on our doorstep: the Left has woken up to the menace of galloping Peronism. Welcome aboard, comrades.