fbpx

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.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on October 19, 2015 at 11:12:34 am

Yes, as long as it's honest graft.

read full comment
Image of Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi
on October 19, 2015 at 11:39:00 am

"(The coalition between the GOP and “Blue Dog” Democrats in the early eighties looks in retrospect like the last gasp.) "

Perhaps Prof. Greve still lived in Germany in the early 80s. There was no term "blue dog Democrat" back then. The term in those days was "yellow dog Democrat," meaning someone who would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. The current idiotic "blue = Democrat, red=Republican" color scheme did not become fixed until around 2000. The left appropriated for themselves the more desirable color - even though "red" had up till that time always meant "left" - and the right, as usual, acquiesced.

read full comment
Image of djf
djf
on October 19, 2015 at 12:16:45 pm

Yes, at least the potholes were filled - who cared about the cost!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 19, 2015 at 12:30:52 pm

On a mores serious note, however, it seems to me that we may be missing the connection between "transactional" politics and ideological politics.
1) Quite often, the transactional nature and its particularities of a brand of politics is impelled by an underlying ideology. Was there not an underlying ideology behind the New Deal (see FDR's new freedoms)?
2) Over time as the transactions, in this case *grants to the people* become a) commonplace and b) generally accepted (expected?), the "transactioning" party, with ever greater confidence in its message AND messaging may / will openly espouse its underlying ideology as is the case with the Democrat Party and its two leading contenders for the throne: The one openly claims the mantle of the socialist (albeit "democratic" socialist) where the second (the one in a pantsuit) claims to be no different from the first.

All is as it should be, right? Is this transactional or ideological?

One could argue that the REAL problem is that ONLY one party is ideological. The opposition party (i.e., *the stupid party) appears to exist solely as a transactional party for the powerful moneyed interests (not quite true) and does not nothing to effectively counter this; nor does it make any attempt to promote and countering ideology to the prevailing one as presented by the Democrat Party. Heck, it is, at this time, doubtful that any of its members are even capable of presenting a coherent counter ideology.

Nope, I think that what is needed is MORE ideology - something clear and concise that "splains" what we were intended to be. This, "me-too-ism" but in smaller doses really doesn't quite cut it, now does it?

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 19, 2015 at 12:44:35 pm

djf is mostly right: they called themselves "Boll Weevils" at the time ("and "Blue Dog" only after 1994). Failure of memory (not residence). I stand corrected--thx.

read full comment
Image of Mike Greve
Mike Greve
on October 19, 2015 at 13:07:55 pm

Oops - forgot this.

And it may very well be true that it is the very successful "messaging" of the Democrat Party that portrays the Stupid Party (this too is part of the messaging) as a cabal of ideologues that prevents the GOP from launching not only an effective counter but any counter ideological campaign at all.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 19, 2015 at 13:39:53 pm

Perhaps we should not take too seriously the wordsmiths who try to serve as the public intellectuals of our day.

Maybe that caution is what Professor Greve is demonstrating here.

We can begin with the preference of wordsmiths for a concept of "democracy" as a condition, rather than as a tag for a bag of recipes for processes. Or, in the summary words of the late Kenneth Minogue, democracy is a process, not a condition.

The variations of democratic processes can be understood, in accord with their capacities, of expressions of differing populaces of their power over the determinations their conditions, and over the means of those determinations. That subject few wordsmiths explore, until it is thrust before them as professor Greve notes.

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on October 19, 2015 at 14:35:21 pm

I appreciate the acknowledgement. This whole red-blue thing, and especially the presentist projection of it into the past (such as coloring states carried by Lincoln in 1860 red), drives me up the wall more than it should. I really don't remember the use of "blue" in that sense back in '94, or the term "blue dog" that far back. It would be interesting to see an example, if you have one ready at hand.

read full comment
Image of djf
djf
on October 19, 2015 at 15:19:15 pm

Ack! I hate forums where I can't add comments, and VOX is one of those, so I don't normally read it.

C3PO, uh, I mean, Yglesias, almost gets it right at the closing of his article:

"But the factors underlying that stability — first non-ideological parties and then non-disciplined ones — are gone. And it's worth considering the possibility that with them, so too has gone the American exception to the rule of presidential breakdown. If we seem to be unsustainably lurching from crisis to crisis, it's because we are unsustainably lurching from crisis to crisis. The breakdown may not be next year or even in the next five years, but over the next 20 or 30 years, will we really be able to resolve every one of these high-stakes showdowns without making any major mistakes? Do you really trust Congress that much?

"The best we can hope for is that when the crisis does come, Americans will have the wisdom to do for ourselves what we did in the past for Germany and Japan and put a better system in place."

He kind of gets the ideal of government offices held by non-ideological officials. That's good. He also points out correctly that the current ideological operation of government is causing a slow breakdown due to partisan influences. It's leading to a slow collapse into a fascio-socialist democratic state. Eventually we are going to run out of other people's money. Eventually there will be little difference between business and state. He is quite right that the status quo is unsustainable.

He kind of sees in a shallow way the larger cycle of constitutional improvement that takes decades or centuries per revolution.

Then he blows it at the end, and asks for a wholesale replacement of the existing system. What he really wants, even if he doesn't realize it (yet), is to put the original theory of US constitutional government into operation. The Senate and Presidency were originally intended to be non-ideological offices he begs for. They weren't supposed to be these ideological partisan centers of power. The problem is not so much that ye olde Constitution needs to be thrown out and a "new and improved" one written. The original US Constitution was a much better constitution than the one we follow today. The problem lies with getting the original design working correctly for the first time in our history.

Or, we could just sit around on our hands, getting our rocks off by complaining about how bad things are.

read full comment
Image of Scott Amorian
Scott Amorian
on October 19, 2015 at 15:51:16 pm

Do people who believe that Constitution is a "living document," pace Yglesias, respect the Constitution? They respect the idea of "social justice" which they regard as the end of constitutional reasoning, perhaps, but not the Constitution itself.

read full comment
Image of Richard S
Richard S
on October 19, 2015 at 16:09:54 pm

It seems that they "respect" it only insofar as it may be used as a mechanism to effect their (ideological) aims.

In times such as these, there must be a "counter" - sadly, that has not been the case. This is why a robust ideological debate ought to be undertaken.

If won, we can attempt to implement the Madisonian vision of a House based upon Paine and a Senate reflective of Burke to control the "majoritarian / populist" problem.

In the meantime, let there be DEBATE - and an ideological debate!!! for how else do we effect a citizenry of sufficient (knowledge and) virtue for true self-governance. Absent that we are left with nothing more than a transaction "mechanism" intended, and motivated by a desire, to maintain the ideological preferences of the elite and bring on this age's *rapture.*

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 19, 2015 at 16:55:29 pm

That scheme--a populist house and an aristocratic senate is the main theme of Adams' Defence of the Constitutions. Plus an executive with a veto, and a separate judiciary, of course.
As Adams put it in early 1787--power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest.

read full comment
Image of Richard S
Richard S
on October 19, 2015 at 19:43:53 pm

First, the American people need to see a working example. We would be stupid to just jump in and make critical changes the way the federal government works. Most American's would prefer not to lose populist control over the Senate and Presidency.

Conscience is a private matter, and what is needed is conscience in the Senate so it can moderate the proposals of the House. That means giving the Senate a secret ballot, just like a jury has and just like popular elections have. A proposal like that would raise some red flags, even if it was a credible proposal.

I've tried to find some working examples. Brazil sort of fakes its way through secret balloting by taking voice votes and not recording who voted. Brazil used to have an actual constitutional secret ballot for voting for impeachments, but the public didn't care too much for it and the constitutional secret balloting was removed from their constitution.

I'm looking for better examples, but I'm not finding any.

Before the Constitution, Pennsylvania used to have a committee of "censors" that did the kind of thing that the Senate should be doing, but their committee was appointed by the legislature, so you had the body that filtered the proposed laws being appointed by the same body that proposed the laws. It didn't work too well of course.

Perhaps world history has some better examples of an non-titled "aristocracy" of sorts actually being effective as a senate.

read full comment
Image of Scott Amorian
Scott Amorian

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.