Hey, Read This: Democracy is Dying

For many, the current political atmosphere in the U.S. and Britain feels like the end of the world.


Welcome back to Hey, Read This, the column feature where we talk about the Things You Should Be Reading.™

This week, we’re freaking out, and we’re reading articles by other people who are freaked out.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that the angry, misleadingxenophobic, and, at times, violent fight over the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union resolved itself in the worst possible way on June 23—in a 52-48 decision to leave the EU.

And unless you’ve really been living under a rock, you know that this presidential election season in the United States hasn’t exactly been a paragon of Democracy Done Right.

What the hell is happening to the world?

We’ve gathered a few of our favorite theories. The debate focuses on the role of elites—are they necessary, or are they the cause of all this?—and questions basic features of our democratic institutions, like elections and checks and balances.

It also makes great fuel for this Friday’s bitch-sesh with your friends (if your friends are anything like my friends).

So, what’s the reading list?


1. The Defense of the Establishment

Jonathan Rauch’s Atlantic cover story for this month asks a simple question—How did American politics go insane?—but he arrives at a surprising answer: We created the dysfunction through decades of “reform” intended to eliminate the middlemen between elected officials and voters. It turns out, Rauch argues, those middlemen were important. The much-maligned establishment is the reason American politics ever worked.

It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.

Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.

It is, admittedly, an argument as insane as American politics, especially given the current anti-establishment climate. But I think there might be some truth in it, and I recommend reading the whole thing before you dismiss it out of hand—if only because it’s nice to imagine that the solution to this political crisis is as simple as rebuilding the parties and changing some rules on Capitol Hill.

2. The Problem with Presidential Systems

Matthew Yglesias wrote a similarly far-reaching manifesto about the collapse of American politics last year, in Vox. His thesis relied on an idea just as controversial as Rauch’s: The problem lies in the Constitution.

The idea that America’s constitutional system might be fundamentally flawed cuts deeply against the grain of our political culture. But the reality is that despite its durability, it has rarely functioned well by the standards of a modern democracy. […] As dysfunctional as American government may seem today, we’ve actually been lucky. No other presidential system has gone as long as ours without a major breakdown of the constitutional order.

This is a thesis that has been active in the political science academy for a while:

[Consider] the nature of the checks and balances system. Since both the president and the Congress are directly elected by the people, they can both claim to speak for the people. When they have a serious disagreement, according to [late Yale political scientist Juan] Linz, ‘there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved.’

In a parliamentary system, deadlocks get resolved. A prime minister who lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority is replaced by a new one who has it. If no such majority can be found, a new election is held and the new parliament picks a leader. It can get a little messy for a period of weeks, but there’s simply no possibility of a years-long spell in which the legislative and executive branches glare at each other unproductively.

Yglesias applies this old, academic theory to our current political situation with alarming consequences, as when he dedicates a paragraph to listing all of the ways his predicted “collapse” of our system could unfold in the near future:

What if a disputed presidential election coincided with a Supreme Court vacancy? What if the simultaneous deaths of the president and vice president brought to power a House Speaker from the opposite party? What if neither party secured a majority of electoral votes and a presidential election wound up being decided by a vote of the lame duck House of Representatives? What if highly partisan state legislatures start using their constitutional authority to rig the presidential contest? A system of undisciplined or non-ideological political parties has many flaws, but it is at least robust to a variety of shocks. Our current party alignment makes for a much more brittle situation, in which one of any number of crises where democratic norms and constitutional procedures diverge could bring us to a state of emergency.

Even though it contradicts everything you were taught in school about the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, Yglesias builds a convincing historical case for his argument. Give him the benefit of the doubt and read the whole thing.

3. The Critique of the GOP

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine offers a pretty simple rebuttal of both Rauch’s and Yglesias’s arguments: What makes you think the problem is with the American political system and not just with the Republican Party?

Chait’s take on Rauch’s argument is simple:

Since he identifies causes of illness that afflict both parties equally, while the symptoms have manifested in only one of them, what reason is there to trust his diagnosis?

In other words, the problem isn’t anything to do with the American Establishment, but with the Republican one.

Virtually every breakdown in governing he identifies is occurring primarily or exclusively within the Republican Party. Democrats have not been shutting down the government, holding the debt ceiling hostage, overthrowing their leaders in Congress, revolting against normal deal-making, or (for the most part) living in terror of primary challenges. Rauch is right that Sanders has encouraged unrealistic ideas about a revolution that would make compromise unnecessary, but the signal fact is that Sanders lost.

His critique of Yglesias’s argument is equally simple:

Perhaps the Republican legislative boycott is not only a strategy, but also a reflection of an ideology. Perhaps Republicans and Democrats cannot compromise over the shape of the state because the GOP’s reigning public philosophy makes legislative compromise impossible. After all, the shape of our presidential system is not the only thing that separates the U.S. from other industrialized democracies. The other major difference is that the United States is the only advanced democracy whose major conservative party rejects the principle of universal health care, has leading figures influenced by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and opposes even the tiniest revenue increases on principle.

If you’re progressive, like me, then Chait’s arguments are emotionally cathartic, if ultimately less convincing than the originals. Still, they deserve consideration.

4. The Unpreventable, Gradual Decline

Ezra Klein offers a more convincing but also more depressing response to Yglesias’s argument. He’s right about everything, Klein says, except that instead of American democracy exploding in technicolor special effects, it will fade gently into that good night.

Policy wonks, in general, tend to underestimate the power (and, to some degree, the appeal) of muddling through problems. We see a problem and assume that there will have to be, eventually, a solution. But we routinely underestimate the public’s capacity to endure dysfunction and its unwillingness to countenance disruptive change. […]

As such, the root dysfunction — that America’s political system is not built for, and does not work amidst, highly polarized parties — will not lead to the collapse of American democracy so much as a slow erosion of America’s advantages. Much that needs to get done simply won’t get done. What does get done won’t be done well.

Our system will adapt, Klein argues, through small changes like eliminating the filibuster, strengthening the presidency and executive power, and retroactively correcting the obvious problems that arise—like ending the debt ceiling after we inevitably fail to raise it and default on our national debt.

But nothing real and systemic will change.

Over time, the public will grow angry with this situation, but they won’t know exactly who to be angry at, nor how to fix it. It is hard to apportion blame for economic growth that should have happened but didn’t; for a tax code that should have been simplified but wasn’t; for successful companies that could have been started here but weren’t; for government services that should be better but aren’t. America will muddle through — the cost of our political system’s problems won’t be a spectacular collapse so much as they will be the slow divergence between what our living standards could be and what they are.

God bless America!

5. The Undemocratic Nature of Elections

Let’s jump the pond now to David Van Reybrouck’s argument in The Guardian that “elections” and “democracy” might not be synonymous. If “democracy” is a system of governance rooted in the will of the people, and “elections” have a tendency to misrepresent the will of the people, then, he argues, the biggest failure of democracy today is our continued reliance on electoral institutions.

Even as governments have experimented with the levers of democracy since 1776—trying presidential systems and parliamentary ones, bicameral legislatures and unicameral ones, federal structures and national ones—we haven’t given much further thought to the idea of elections. We have instead “reduce[ed] democracy to voting.”

Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

Interestingly, Van Reybrouck’s argument identifies a culprit in the gradual erosion of electoral democracy that can be recognized from Rauch’s argument—the elimination of “establishment” institutions like political parties in favor of mass, commercialized media:

Through a network of intermediary organisations, such as unions, corporations and party media, [western democracies] succeeded in being close to the lives of individual citizens. This changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when discourse was increasingly shaped by the free market. Commercial mass media emerged as the most important builders of social consensus, and organised civil society lost ground.

Van Reybrouck’s proposed solution, though, is unusual. He suggests a return to “sortition,” or the selection of citizen groups by lots, similar to the jury system:

In ancient Athens, the large majority of public functions were assigned by lot. Renaissance states such as Venice and Florence worked on the same basis and experienced centuries of political stability. With sortition, you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

This has been tried in a few places recently, most notably Ireland. As Van Reybrouck tells it, an Irish constitutional convention began in December of 2012, composed of 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, chosen randomly but with attention to demographic representation.

[P]articipants listened to experts and received input from other citizens (more than a thousand contributions came in on the subject of gay marriage). The decisions made by the convention did not have the force of law; the recommendations first had to be passed by the two chambers of the Irish parliament, then by the government and then in a referendum.

By talking to a diverse cross-section of Irish society, politicians could get further than they could have by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens could give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum.

Van Reybrouck proposes the permanent implementation of this system in a kind of third legislative body—a body of completely unelected citizens.

It’s quite the thought-provoking suggestion, which makes it a nice addition to this list. Finally, someone with a real(ish) solution!

6. The Attack on the Establishment

And now let’s close the circle with two arguments that blame the current political malaise not on the demise of the elites, as Rauch does, but on their success.

Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept argues that the xenophobia and racism on display in Trumpism and the Brexit campaign are really beside the point. The elite and its neoliberal consensus broke democracy decades ago, and what we’re seeing now are the angry and misguided efforts to take it back.

Corrupt elites always try to persuade people to continue to submit to their dominance in exchange for protection from forces that are even worse. That’s their game. But at some point, they themselves, and their prevailing order, become so destructive, so deceitful, so toxic, that their victims are willing to gamble that the alternatives will not be worse, or at least, they decide to embrace the satisfaction of spitting in the faces of those who have displayed nothing but contempt and condescension for them.

Greenwald thinks that much of the political and journalistic handwringing over recent events (that stuff we’ve been reading and talking about for the past ten minutes) is itself indicative of the problem.

Because of how generally satisfied they are with their lot, [the elite] regard with affection and respect the internationalist institutions that safeguard the West’s prevailing order: the World Bank and IMF, NATO and the West’s military forces, the Federal Reserve, Wall Street, the EU. While they express some piecemeal criticisms of each, they literally cannot comprehend how anyone would be fundamentally disillusioned by and angry with these institutions, let alone want to break from them. They are far removed from the suffering that causes those anti-establishment sentiments. So they search and search in vain for some rationale that could explain something like Brexit — or the establishment-condemning movements on the right and left — and can find only one way to process it: These people are not motivated by any legitimate grievances or economic suffering, but instead they are just broken, ungrateful, immoral, hateful, racist, and ignorant.

Lisandro Claudio makes an interesting contradictory argument in Quartz: The problem is not the neoliberal elites, but the academic elites whose discourse about neoliberal elites has penetrated the mainstream.

These academic ideas, Claudio argues, have promoted a critique of the existing system without forwarding any alternatives to governance, leading to an inevitable wave of unproductive, nihilistic anger and destruction.

[We] need intellectuals who use their intellects for more than simple negation […]. Failing that, we need academics who acknowledge that liberal democracy, though slow and imperfect, enables a bare minimum of tolerance in a world beset by xenophobia and hatred. For although academics have the luxury of imagining a completely different world, the rest of us have to figure out what to do with the one we have.

And there you have it—two different elite groups upon whom we can heap the blame for our own mistakes and that of our neighbors. Pick your poison.


There, now don’t you feel a hundred times smarter (and probably infinitely less hopeful than you were on July 4th)?

Happy reading, and drop us a line in the comments to tell us about what (else) you’re reading this week.


Jacqui is a terrible dinner party guest—she only knows how to talk about politics and religion. On a typical Friday night, she can be found binge-watching her current Netflix show of choice, playing Civilization: The Board Game and drinking <$8 bottles of champagne.

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