Monday, February 4, 2013

Monday Cranky Blogging 2

This one is going to be a bit unusual for cranky blogging, and I want to be clear about this up front: I got cranky from reading an article which I really liked overall. It's from Jonathan Chait, and he does an excellent job of putting together a bunch of things that lots of us have written about separately, in a way that I don't think anyone has done yet: the Republican program of aggressive gerrymanders, the aborted attempt to rig the electoral college, the filibuster, judicial activism, and various forms of making it difficult to vote. Chait argues, and I think with quite a bit of strength, that we should think of these all as an anti-democratic program. It's good; I recommend it.

So why am I cranky? Well, it's about questions of democracy. It's not really the main point Chait is making, but (more or less) about some of the wording he used to make it.

I started getting cranky when Chait referred to "majoritarian" democracy. He uses it as, more or less, a synonym for legitimate democracy, and that isn't quite right. The idea behind majoritarian democracy, as I understand it, is pretty simple: take a vote, and whoever gets the most votes wins. It gets more complicated in practice...for example, do you want a true majority, or will a plurality do? But the basic idea behind majoritarian democracy as a subset of democracy in general is that the concerns of the majority are thought to be essentially absolute. As such, it's not really on the same dimension as, for example, the question of whether people or geographic areas should be represented; to the extent that one could argue that the Senate is democratic because states should be represented, the majoritarian position would be that the Senate resulting from that sort of apportionment should be a strict majority-run chamber. Except a proper majoritarian democracy would have no use for the redundancies of a two-chamber legislature, or a separate president and executive branch, or states with the ability to function independently. In other words, who counts as the majority -- who counts as voters -- is really a separate question from what the power of that majority should be.

But the truth is I don't really have a major problem with dragging the people/geography thing into the question of "majoritarian" democracy. It's close enough, and there's little harm done, even though I do think there's some analytical purchase gained from keeping them separate.

So I wouldn't have bothered, probably, if Chait had avoided my #1 democracy disaster, way down in the final paragraph (emphasis added): "American history has always tugged back and forth between a more pure democracy and some constricted facsimile thereof."

No dice. Democracy is complicated, and there's simply no such thing as "pure" democracy. There are perfectly legitimate debates about direct versus representative democracy, or majoritarian compared with (what I at least call) Madisonian democracy, and plenty of other discussions worth having. Calling one form of democracy "pure" is a way of shortcutting the arguments altogether.

Now, in this particular case, what I think we want to say, and Chait sort of comes close to this and backs off, is that there's simply a strain here that's anti-democratic. It's not against a particular form or conception of democracy; it's just against democracy. I think that's particularly the case with GOP efforts to restrict voting; it's very hard, in my view, to argue that democracy is enhanced when fewer people vote. But it's also, in my view, a more accurate characterization of the pure 60 vote Senate; one can justify filibusters and traditional Senate restrictions on the majority by invoking Madisonian ideas, but it's a lot harder to fit a pure 60% requirement for everything into a Madisonian framework or any other conception of democracy. After all, if democracy is basically at some level nothing more than rule of the people, then it's very possible to argue that it should be rule of all the people and not just the majority -- but it can't be right that it should be flat-out rule of the minority (in cases of a majority smaller than 60%), and no one really thinks it should be.

Generally, however, I just absolutely hate it when anyone tries to invoke "pure" democracy, and I am just so, so, cranky about it. So everyone: cut it out.

11 comments:

  1. Madison feared faction - particularly wealth redistributing factions. That is at the base of his concern for minority rights. So he favored ways to slow the process down. The indirectly elected and population insensitive Senate is a prime one. Lifetime judges is another.
    The problem with the routine filibuster today is that it is super-anti-majoritarian. As used by today's Republican Party it defeats the basic value of the rule: which is to ensure that the minority can be heard - i.e. that it can insist that debate continue until its point of view has been heard. That charges the majority with giving due heed to the minority whose interests are not the majority's primary concern.
    The problem therefore is not that majorities are unable to rule just as they would like. It is that a minority - which cannot have its way - prevents even a considerate majority from having its way.

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  2. I think there's a key difference between a republican system that creates veto points, empowers smaller organized interests, and generally gives power to the minority party and a republican system where structures are built to disproportionately shift power to certain groups of people.

    Put differently, I have a lot less problem with the Senate's filibuster/committee structure/emphasis on the individual tendency to reward smaller, organized groups than I do with it arbitrarily favoring rural, white groups over others. Over time, these structural forces lead to really bad outcomes.

    So, the problem with the Republican anti-democratic stuff isn't that it is anti-majoritarian, but that it consciously shifts structure power to a certain (shrinking) demographic.

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  3. Question of the day: If liberals insisted on super-majorities (60%?, 2/3 majority?) for spending cuts, would conservatives learn the virtues of a simple majority vote?

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  4. “…but it's a lot harder to fit a pure 60% requirement for everything into a Madisonian framework or any other conception of democracy. After all, if democracy is basically at some level nothing more than rule of the people, then it's very possible to argue that it should be rule of all the people and not just the majority -- but it can't be right that it should be flat-out rule of the minority (in cases of a majority smaller than 60%), and no one really thinks it should be.”

    First of all, I don’t understand why unanimous approval would be more democratic than 60%. If unanimity were required, the only negotiations that mattered would be conducted at the dinner table of Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders (not that there’d be anything wrong with that…). If the tyranny of 40% is bad, wouldn’t the tyranny of one be much much worse?

    But more to the point, there’s absolutely nothing undemocratic about a 60% requirement to pass legislation in the Senate. You can argue that the filibuster is too easy or that it’s been abused, but it’s there for a reason. The idea is to protect the people and the states by restraining the power of the majority. To the extent that this may be considered undemocratic, it’s only because it’s serving the competing goals of liberalism that our founders adhered to.

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    Replies
    1. "But it's there for a reason."

      This is not true. The filibuster is an entirely accidental by-product of the Senate's rules that was not used once until the 1830s.

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    2. No, it’s not an accident that the senate rules allow a minority to slow and, if necessary, stop bad legislation. From senate.gov:

      “To the framers themselves, Madison explained that the Senate would be a ‘necessary fence’ against the ‘fickleness and passion’ that tended to influence the attitudes of the general public and members of the House of Representatives. George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to ‘cool’ House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea.”

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    3. Senate.gov, of course, promotes the self-image of the Senate, so I'm not sure how much we want to believe their version of things.

      But generally: look, I don't think it's correct to say that the idea of the Senate, or of the Madisonian system in general, is "to protect the people and the states by restraining the power of the majority." For Madison, it certainly is important to restrain the majority...but also to empower the majority, along with the rest of the people. The whole reason for replacing the Articles is that the didn't produce *enough* government power. And he wants to replace it with a system that *does* empower people...he just doesn't want to fall into the traps that majoritarian democracy always, from his reading, runs into.

      Anyway: perhaps it could be true that there's an argument for a 60% democracy, along the lines of arguments for consensus democracy. But very few, I think, who really want democracy would argue for either.

      The real Madisonian trick is to empower both majorities and minorities. Not easy at all!

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    4. For Madison, it certainly is important to restrain the majority...but also to empower the majority, along with the rest of the people. The whole reason for replacing the Articles is that the didn't produce *enough* government power.

      Absolutely -- this is the point that our Tea Party friends, plus most libertarians I've debated, plus most commentators on conservative blogs and news sites, are just clueless about. The sainted Founders founded a federal government when they didn't have to. They did this to override state's rights, which was already the system under the Articles. They wanted a central government that had the power to lay taxes directly (i.e. not just ask the states to do it) and also to go into debt to finance national projects. They were tired of relying on Virginia's credit rating and wanted the U.S. to have one of its own, and they knew that the taxing power was what improves a government's credit. In short, their goal was power, not rights. The Bill of Rights was a later addition forced on the Framers in order to buy off "antifederalist" opposition.

      But, today, the right seems to think that the federal Constitution was written for the purpose of having a bill of rights. It is historical idiocy / illiteracy of the first order. Sorry, I get cranky myself constantly repeating all this.

      That said, I read the Chait article before reading this critique, and while it's true that he's oversimplifying things in the interest of his polemic, his "more pure democracy" is a rhetorical foil, the term he needs by way of contrast to what he's really interested in, which is the GOP's current jihad against the People because they're a bunch of urban-dwelling, Europhilic "Takers" who refuse to vote the right way. His mission is accomplished when he's drawn attention to that point. Hey, it's journalism, it's not political science. What would political scientists do with themselves, anyway, if laypeople already knew and accurately represented everything they're trying to teach, crankily or otherwise? :-)

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    5. Jonathan, I don’t disagree with you. As you point out, Madison was trying to both empower the people and to restrain them. I think you can make the case that the filibuster needs reform. But when you say that it’s undemocratic, you’re ignoring this conception of limited democracy that our country was founded on.

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    6. I'm not sure whether we disagree or not, but I'd take issue with your wording in two places. I'd say "empower the people and restrain *majorities*" rather than empower and restrain *the people*.

      And I don't agree that Madison's vision was "limited democracy." In my reading, he was for a full, robust democracy -- which requires restraining majorities, because democracy isn't the dictatorship of the majority.

      All that said: as you know, I'm perfectly fine with a Senate with complex decision rules that makes it hard for majorities and majority parties to get their way. It's only the full 60 vote Senate that I think is highly problematic, including on grounds of democracy.

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    7. Well, I disagree on the issue of limited vs. robust democracy. I think even most Republicans would be shocked by how limited Madison’s conception of our federal government was.

      Regarding the Senate, are you saying that it’s ok to make it difficult for majorities to get their way, but it’s not ok to stop them altogether?

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