Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sign Language, Morse Code, Semaphore and Gibberish (A Note on the Vocabulary of Democracy)

I want to clarify what I mean when I use the word "democracy,"  and I guess by extension how I think others should use it.

By the way, have I bragged about Plain Blog's commenters recently?  Really worth reading, at least in my opinion.  This item is brought on commenter Jeff, who frequently weighs in whenever I talk about democratic theory and the Framers.  He and I, as far as I can tell, agree on some things, disagree on others -- he's well worth reading, and the specific point I'm basing this post around is only a piece of what he has to say.

With regard to my comments on Congress, democracy, and other issues, Jeff noted:
As I've said before, I have real doubts that anything we're seeing today can fairly be called "Madisonian" or imputed to the "design" of the Framers. At the very least, we have to be careful about claiming that they valued "democracy," (a) because many of them didn't, and said so ("the Democracy" was a term of abuse well into the 19th century, often used in the same sentence as "the mob" or "the rabble"), and (b) because even where we find praise of democracy in the late 18th century, we have to be carefully not to read it anachronistically in light of our own understanding of the term instead of theirs. 
Jeff is certainly correct that pretty much everyone in the 18th century, certainly including the Framers, hated what they called "democracy."  What they wanted was something that they called a "republic."  Now, the question is how to treat that.

Following Robert Dahl, I'm convinced that the two words don't usefully distinguish between two different forms of government for us.  In other words, we should -- and I tend to -- use them as synonyms.  Both, it seems to me, refer to a system of popular government, a system in which all (more or less) people are formally equal, and in some sense the people rule.  Now, if we look back at the history of the words, what's obviously the case is that one is from Rome, the other from Greece.  But that doesn't really help us very much.  Rome and Athens had very different systems of government, but neither looks a lot like anything today, and neither came anywhere close to fulfilling conditions of formal equality for people.  That the framers looked  to Rome for their terminology is interesting, and in some ways may have mattered, but the United States Constitution isn't, in any meaningful sense, based on the actual institutions of the Roman Republic (other, I guess, than the absence of kings).

What we do want to distinguish are different forms or types of democracy: direct democracy, representative democracy, majoritarian democracy, what I call Madisonian (or anti-majoritarian) democracy, Athenian democracy, perhaps participatory democracy, and whatever others there might be.  I think that's what Madison and friends were doing, just in their own language, which was far less developed than ours since there had been so little democracy to that point.

So when Madison says he doesn't like democracy but does want a republic, we need to translate that into our own usage to make sense of it, and that's going to yield something to complete this sentence: Madison didn't like [one form of] democracy but did support [another form of] democracy.  Actually filling in those brackets is going to take careful reading (and perhaps careful additional research), and while I'm comfortable arguing that Madison opposed majoritarian democracy while supporting what I call, well, Madisonian democracy, I'm open to evidence that I have that wrong.  I'm reasonably certain, however, that simply saying that he (or the framers) opposed democracy confuses the issue.  What they were after was something in what we would consider today a part of the democratic family, even if Athens was out of fashion at that point.


  1. Just a small question, do you see any faults with what you call Madisonian Democracy. To me, the big fault seems to be that its harder if not impossible to deal with some very important issues in the best possible manner unless national defense is on the line.

    Look at the HCR debate. It was pretty objectively clear that the American healthcare system wasn't delivering healthcare effectively to most Americans and was causing a lot of deficit problems. The best possible solution would have been Medicare for All but Madisonian Democracy made this impossible to achieve. Even the public option proved hard to achieve. What we got instead was a sort of w diluted Bismarckian healthcare system that nobody is sure would work or not rather than something known to work in area that needed a lot of improvement. And this was after fifty years of liberals actually trying to pass a HCR law that applies to all Americans rather than a specific subsection of Americans. Is this a good thing? Wouldn't have been better in so many ways if Truman could have instituted universal healthcare during his presidency?

  2. First, thanks for those very kind remarks. It's a great blog, it's in a list of blogs I recommend to my students (for whatever that's worth -- you know students), and I hope it continues to develop a bigger following.

    Also, I think we agree on most things -- most recently, on the timeless brilliance of Yes, Minister and its successor, Yes, Prime Minister. No arguments there!

    On the point at hand, I agree that we can translate Madison's talk about "republics" into an endorsement of a kind of democracy on the terms you're indicating. I guess I was concerned about some possible slippage, where once we make that translation we then mistake Madison for endorsing whatever it is that we, today, happen to think makes democracy work -- like, interest groups battling it out through parochially minded reps in Congress. It seems to me that in the case of something like the bailout and the car dealers, Madison would have been looking to Congress to think broadly (as Obama, I believe, was trying to do) about the great national problems: how to rescue the economy overall, whether to keep America in the automaking business going forward, how to re-regulate things so crises like these would be less likely in future, etc. He would not, I don't think, have been happy to see representatives of the people fighting on behalf of a particular moneyed interest (although, being intellectually curious and flexible about applying past models, he would have been intrigued to hear a theory explaining why this isn't as bad a way to get things done as it seems, given that a huge modern republic is unlike those known in his time).

    In the narrowest sense, Alexander Hamilton would have been friendlier to the car-dealer lobby inasmuch as it was sticking up for one element of the "merchant" class. But overall he would have been, I think, even more hostile to this sort of chaotic approach to industrial policymaking, for the reasons I mentioned in my comment on the earlier post.

    Does this matter? One thing you realize when you set these guys side by side is that it's very hard to talk about any facet of the American government of today as reflecting "the Founders'" intent. They didn't agree with each other, and in crucial respects -- since Hamilton won the early policy debates -- I think Madison already believed by sometime in the 1790s that the government he was seeing was not the one imagined in his theory. That the following 200+ years of political evolution would have brought it into closer alignment, in his view, instead of increasing the divergence, just seems unlikely to me. Hamilton would be more comfortable with a lot of what we have today, like the expansion of the president's powers, the (further) reduced role of the states, and the existence of powerful central bankers. It's just this particular feature -- the importance of lobbyists and self-dealing interest groups in determining what the government does -- that I have trouble seeing him warming up to.

    But again, I'm not an originalist. As far as I'm concerned, it does not really help an argument to invoke the Founders'/Framers' authority for it, and likewise it doesn't necessarily represent a defect in the modern system if we can't ground it in the Framers' theories.

  3. I thought Dahl's take that Madison was very clever and strategic in making a distinction between democracy and republic -- a distinction that had never existed before -- was very interesting.

    Jeff, you are flirting with blasphemy. Did you not know that the Founders were divinely inspired so to invoke their intent is to invoke divine authority? I think the best take on that is Founders' fetish.

    Lee, I think that people who find the Madisonian model of democracy appealing fail to appreciate and/or highlight not only how anti-majoritarian it is but how much it both relies on and reinforces the concentration of wealth. It was all about protecting large property holders and creditors over debtors. Same in 2010 as it was in 1790. Then, they wanted to prevent states inflating their citizens way out of debt to prevent foreclosures, now, we allow banks to continue to foreclose despite apparent abuse of both the initial lending process and now the foreclosure process. So, a downside -- depends not only on what you think it the best relationship between individual citizens and their government but also what kind of income distribution you want. He who makes the rules wins the game (Tom Toles, 10/13/2010).

  4. Lee,

    If you believe that there are objectively better policies, then I think I'd agree that Madisonian democracy (and, in fact, *any* form of democracy, IMO) are not guaranteed to adopt those policies. Of course, that's true of any form of government, and it's while IMO it's not a good test for which form of government is better, at any rate it's not entirely clear to me that democracy, and in particular Madisonian democracy, is worse than other options. Still, I suspect that it's easier to support (any) democracy if you're skeptical of the idea that there is an objective best policy out there.

    (Which, of course, is not really related to the idea that political actors may believe that what they want is the best policy, which is just fine IMO in a democracy -- although I would say that the best political actors are able to also see the world as it looks to others).

    As for other weaknesses...the big one is that it's hard to design such a system without a big status quo bias, and that's problematic. There are other weaknesses, but that's clearly the big one, to me.

  5. Jeff,

    Thanks back.

    We agree that thinking of either the original Constitution or the system as it worked itself out over time as Authored by The Framers is problematic at best. Certainly we know that lots of specific provisions that got adopted in Philadelphia were contrary to what Madison wanted (let alone Hamilton).

    That said...I don't really have any problem with using Madison as the "author" of the Constitution as a shorthand way of referring to it (although I don't have any problem, either, with people pointing out where that falls short). Nor do I think it's problematic to derive "Madisonian" ideas from what he wrote (and/or did), and I find those ideas quite consistent with the system as it evolved (in the aspects I think are important). Now, as I've said before, I have a non-standard interpretation of Madison, which certainly could be dead wrong, and if there's something I should read that would convince me, I'm open to being convinced.

    Let me put it this I read him, there's a "Madisonian" Madison that accepts (out of necessity, but accepts nevertheless) self-interest, and accepts that actual democracy will need to be available even in a world without virtue. To me (and I'm in large part, at least IMO, following Gordon Wood here), that's the big difference between 1776 and 1787. Madison still knew and cared about republican values, but unlike the people of 1776, he thought he could devise a way to keep a republic (that is, a democracy) even if the people lacked those values.

    So, basically, yes, I do think that Madison would be OK with grubby interest group politics. In my reading, he would hope that those involved would eventually move from there to a position of republican Virtue, but he'd prefer what we have to whatever alternatives are available -- in particular, he'd prefer it to a CA-style direct democracy on the one hand, or to anything that smacked of monarchy or oligarchy on the other. In other words...he might be very disappointed in the people, but not so much in the system.

  6. OK, here's my quick response to that (based mostly on Federalist #10). I agree that Madison acknowledges the grubbiness and is looking for a way to manage it, but I think his hope for the American system was that the key transformation would happen before elections, not afterwards in the halls of Congress. He talks a lot about the appropriate size of electorates, for instance, making clear that the Constitution, as he saw it, was a "happy combination" in which representatives would not be "unduly attached to ... local circumstances and lesser interests" but instead would "pursue great and national objects" (at least at the federal level; states would necessarily be more "local").

    So, I think what he would want vis-a-vis car dealers is that they their interests would register somewhere within the system, but would be "refined and enlarged" through the electoral machinery so that actual federal office-holders would be thinking bigger -- aware of the car dealers' interests, perhaps, but weighing these against others within a framework of elite, historically and philosophically informed wisdom. I just don't see him endorsing a system in which sitting congressmen are essentially agents of particular interests, though granted that's already how the system was developing even within his own lifetime.

    also, kcars1 -- yeah, I got the memo about the Founders and their divine inspiration. Spilled coffee all over it, though, and now I can't read it. ;-)

  7. Well, perhaps, and people with that reading of it also tend to point out that Madison didn't envision the kind of mass electorate that has evolved. But: it's not as if Madison didn't know electoral politics. Unless my memory was off, by then he had already lost an election (to Monroe, right?) because Madison didn't bring enough booze for the voters. So he couldn't have had *too* high hopes for it (perhaps at the presidential level with it's two-stage election, I suppose).

    Anyway, I'd say that he hopes that virtue will happen somewhere along the line, but clearly not (only) pre-election; after all, 51 is about self-interested pols, who he expects to be all over the republic. Where I think Madison is going, though, is just to accept that people can be both self-interested and be good citizens (in a reasonably strong way), which no one in 1776 would have bought, and I think he does that by merging liberal and republican ideas.

  8. Not a Marxist here, but Jonathan and Jeff, doesn't Madison, particularly in the Federalist Paper No. 10, make very class-based arguments?

    The framers in general had more personal experience with a formal class system, so it is not all that surprising but just because we abandoned such a formal class system doesn't mean that Madisonian democracy doesn't depend on or promote a certain degree of socio-economic distinction. I think it is particularly important to recognize this in light of that accusations of "class warfare" that are being thrown around... Who is it that said it there was class warfare -- the rich against the poor and middle class?

  9. kcars, I believe it was Warren Buffett who said that there's a class war going on and his class is winning.

    Also, I agree (and have mentioned before in this forum) that the Framers of the Constitution were concerned to protect bondholders and their ilk against populist movements in the states that sought policies favoring the debtor classes. Woody Holton's recent book An Unruly People is very good on this. It's ironic that today's fetishists of the Constitution as sacred writ like to talk about the Framers as if their goal was to "limit" government and federal power, when in fact they created federal power and their explicit goal was to limit the power of states.

    As to how all that squares with the Madisonian design, and whether the latter depends on or promotes class distinctions, I haven't really thought it through. I expect that Jonathan will say the governmental structure and mechanics themselves are neutral with respect to class, i.e. can just as well be used to make policies that involve taxing wealth, regulating markets and helping the little guy, as for example during the New Deal. I don't know, I'll have to think about this further.

  10. Jonathan, I actually don't think there was a one true solution to the healthcare problem. There are lots of different universal healthcare systems and each has its advantages and disadvantages. My main point was that our Madisonian system prevented a universal healthcare bill from passing for decades, and one can argue nearly a century, because it was opposed by a combination of vested interests, ideological anti-statists, and racists who didn't want to provide minorities with healthcare even if it meant they suffered. What finally passed wasn't based on systems known to work but a series of reforms that may or may not work and could be made a hash by the opponents of HCR. And we are supposed to view this as a good thing?

    Likewise, the Madisonian system can make it very hard to deal with emergency situations like climate change or pollution. How much damage needs to be done before effective climate change legislation can be passed? Can we afford to wait fifty years to pass climate change legislation?

    The favoring the status-quo and the continual ability of opponents to prevent any action for decades is not a good thing.

  11. I'd also like to add that ACA, America's this may or may not work universal healthcare bill, passed decades after nearly every other industrialized country passed their version of universal healthcare legislation. That the only legislation that could pass after decades of positive experiences of universal healthcare in other countries was very-watered down because of Madisonian democracy, does not speak well for Madisonian democracy.

  12. Jeff -- of course a neo-Marxist would argue that the New Deal is a prime example of a set of policies that was used by the elite to keep the masses peaceful, ultimately benefiting the elite.

    I think you could make a good argument, using Toles' maxim that he who makes the rules wins the game, when you set up institutions that are mostly about protecting the status quo specifically focused on property rights and contracts -- by design, limiting the ability of the masses to influence policy (including by running for office) to benefit them, those institutions are both premised on and reinforce class distinction. In other words, history is important -- and if the status quo has a certain class structure, the institutions have some role in their continuance.

    I would like to hear more about how institutions can be class neutral. I think -- but have no scholarship to back this up -- you almost have to be either pro-class or anti-class. Access is important and access it is very, very much skewed by class. Yes, you have the occasional son-of-a-goat-herd make it to high office but more often than not, you have some dynastic family (Bush, Carnahan, Rockefeller) and more importantly interpersonal connections between the top echelons of business and government. If you don't systematically work to open access more generally (i.e., quotas for representation), you end up perpetuating the old boys' club. And what you permit you promote.

    Hmm... maybe I should reconsider that Marxist statement but then it would come back to haunt me if I ever ran for office :){ .

  13. kcars, as I say, I don't know. I certainly agree that there's a strong class bias, and always has been, in American politics. I guess the question is whether that's a feature not of the constitutional design, but of the "political culture" that the design reinforces simply because it happens to reinforce the status quo. If (thought experiment) you set up a U.S. House, Senate, Presidency, court system, network of states, etc. -- the features of the U.S. design -- in, say, Denmark or Sweden, or in some hypothetical country whose political culture is even further left, would it tend to drag the politics of that country to the right? Or would it reinforce that status quo, making it harder for the right wing in those countries to undo the already ingrained progressivism? Since I'm not a political scientist, I'm not familiar with whatever's already been written on this. Maybe Jonathan could point us to something if he's still reading this.

  14. I'll try to get to a few things...

    1. Just FYI, everyone (at least everyone still following this): I still read every single comment that comes into the site. I'm getting to the point where I often can't really actively participate in all the discussions, but I always read every comment.

    2. Lee -- I think the history is that the US system *does* allow for quick response to emergencies; it's a nation with a pretty good record of fighting wars. What you're looking for, I think, are not so much emergencies as long-term problems, and I think all flavors of democracy have difficulties with solutions that have short term costs and long-term payoffs. I do think that, since IMO the US system is more democratic than most, it could well have more trouble than most with it.

    3. I basically don't agree at all with kcars1 line of argument, but it is hard to prove these things one way or another. I'm not at all an expert on the comparative literature, but (at least I imagine) it's hard to test anything because you just don't have enough variation in the variables -- we don't have a bunch of different nations with the US system. I *don't* think it's accurate, though, to say that the Madisonian system is protects the status quo "specifically focused on property rights and contracts." Nor do I really think it's correct to say that achieving office in the US is historically unusually restricted, although it is true that MCs are pretty wealthy these days (but many don't come from wealth...e.g. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Obama).


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