Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Democratic Frustration

Two distinguishing features of American democracy: it is Madisonian, and it is situated in an enormously large nation.  Take those together, throw in some individualism and with it the expectation that democracy means getting what you want, and you get a whole lot of frustration. 

I've called this democratic frustration, and identified two major types.  The first is what happens when you get involved, organize, work hard, and then lose.  It can happen in any democracy, but it's especially difficult in a very large democracy, because it's impossible to have any sense of majority or minority out of personal experience.  Indeed, given both geographic distribution of partisanship and the nature of campaigns, odds are that one's personal experience is going to be misleading.  It sure seems, as Pauline Kael didn't really say, that everyone we knows agrees with us -- so how could our side lose?  The classic manifestation of this type of frustration is the conspiracy theory, from Diebold to birtherism or Acorn: the other side didn't really win, after all.

The other type of democratic frustration is the one liberals have been experiencing over the last eighteen months: we won, so why aren't we getting our way?  Again, it's a product of a very large nation and Madisonian democracy.  The latter makes it very hard to do anything; the former means that when "we" won the "we" turns out to include lots of people who disagree on all sorts of things.  This type of frustration yields the charges of sell-out and double-cross: from "let Reagan be Reagan" to Jame Hamsher's campaign against health care reform and Glenn Greenwald's various bits of mishegoss

All of which is just a long-winded and self-serving way (I've been pushing this idea for a while) to introduce a link to a thoughtful article by Michael Tomasky counseling liberals to avoid self-destructive consequences of democratic frustration.  It's a long essay, and I could spend plenty of time arguing with him on the details, but I think the big picture is exactly right.  It's worth reading for everyone, but it's especially worthwhile if you like Obama, and like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, and like the pundits and analysts who mostly support those pols and seem to spend a lot of time explaining why it's not always their fault when things go wrong (from a liberal point of view) -- but you also read critiques that accuse all those people of being insincere sellouts, and you find that interpretation tempting.  What I can tell you is that's just the democratic frustration talking; what Tomasky can tell you is that it's always like that, even during the New Deal, and even during the Great Society. 

Of course, knowing that democratic frustration is par for the course doesn't necessarily make it any less frustrating.  It's important for activists, as Tomasky says, to keep the pressure on -- one of the key points to understand about a Madisonian system is that elections are only one part of self-government, and having the best shot at getting what you want requires engaging in politics even when there's no election on the horizon.   And of course giving up the fantasy that all defeats are the deliberate choices of double-dealing pols doesn't mean that pols, no matter how sincere, won't make mistakes.  Nor does it mean that pols will ignore electoral incentives, and so it's important to make sure (to the extent possible) that those incentives run the way you want them to. 


  1. The United States is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to the US.

    I agree that it's often forgotten just how large this nation is, and just how many people live here. When a candidate (like Obama) wins a national election thanks to the work of a multitude of factions, some of which that have competing interests, it is by definition impossible for the candidate to please them all. Everyone can say that they brought the winning votes on board, but when there are more than 50 million votes cast, that exercise becomes entirely meaningless.

    Not to mention that responsible pols often take the view that they are representing their entire constituency, not just those that voted for them. Then, not only is Obama supposed to advocate the positions favored by his supporters, but also take into account the views of those who voted for the other guy.

    Relatedly, the "US is big" issue becomes lost when talking about taxes and spending, too. A billion dollars sounds like an unimaginable amount of money for any one person, but to a government that governs over 300 million people, it's only a couple bucks a person.

    That Michael Tomasky article is very interesting. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. Jonathan, I was wondering if you find that type 2 democratic frustration seems more pronounced on the left than the right, specifically the Democratic left?

    Roosevelt faced sharp dissent from his left wing, specifically Huey Long. Truman had the left wing of the party break off to Henry Wallace in 48. Johnson was driven from office by a left wing revolt (which makes modern Progressives veneration of him particularly entertaining). Carter had Kennedy. I am confident Clinton would have had similar problems if not for the Republican takeover. There have certainly been revolts from the Republican right (Goldwater in 64 and the collapse of the right during Bush 1) but type 2 democratic frustration does seem to primarily affect the left wing of the Democratic party.

  3. Re: Type two - without disagreeing at all, I'll add that there's a bit more to it than that. Despite Republican canards that Obama is a wildly liberal, pinko, socialist, quasi commie, he is, in fact, a centrist conservative, and several steps to the right of that real commie, Eisenhower. People who thought they we voting for a liberal are bound to be sad and disappointed.

    Kal - Time is an illusion. Lunch time doubly so.


  4. Thanks for the Kael correction, but doesn't what she actually said - can't comment on the election beacuse she "didn't know anyone who voted for Nixon" make the same point anyway?

  5. Sue,

    I don't know. I can say that it's an Iron Law of Politics that all partisans believe that the other party is better organized, more disciplined, more devious, more ruthless, and better at manipulating procedure than their own party. That said, it is possible that one there are actual differences between the parties on that score. I suspect so, but I don't have good evidence.


    The original point made using the Kael "quote" is that liberals are cosmopolitan elites who are thoroughly out of touch with "real" America -- she supposedly was so out of touch that she was surprised by the election results. What she actually said was different; it showed self-awareness of how limited her own experience was. And of course all of our personal experiences are quite limited, so it says nothing bad about anyone or any group if they realize that about themselves


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