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.