Monday, August 23, 2010

Let's Get Moving Into Action

I'm happy to see Monkey Cager John Sides guesting for Ezra Klein this week, and I recommend his first post over there, taking on Scott Rassmussen on the question of whether Americans really want to govern themselves.  John knows a lot more than I do about public opinion, so I have nothing really to add to what he says, but I'll use it as an excuse to talk about James Madison and the crisis of the 1780s, which is not exactly related but close enough, and something I'm interested in anyway, because it brings up an interesting question: why democracy?

One of the goofy things about the US is that we so much take it for granted that democracy is the best form of government -- and all other forms are in turn stigmatized -- that we really don't think about it very much or very carefully, which I think winds up producing a fair amount of sloppy thinking when we get around to doing institutional reform.  I'm not going to go through all of the ideas behind democracy in this post, but I'll just say that most of us have been mainly exposed to Lockean, liberal reasons for democracy, which I think for most people come down to questions about outcomes: democracy is best because it produces, or at least promises to produce, the best, or fairest, or most justifiable public policies.  Yet there are also participatory arguments in favor of democracy, which are related to republican arguments generally associated with a long line of thinkers often traced to Machiavelli.  Theorists in that tradition argue that public action is, at least for some people, self-fulfilling; that is, they believe that one of the things that set humans apart is that we have a capacity for collectively organizing the way we live, and those who get involved in politics for whatever motives often find that it is deeply satisfying.  Hannah Arendt talks about this capacity for "public happiness" extensively in On Revolution, noting that people caught up in revolutions often express surprise that getting involved was so personally fulfilling; see also Gordon Wood's discussion of the American revolutionaries, or, for that matter, what veterans of the civil rights movement have said about it. Arendt makes the point that Jefferson's odd formulation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" contains an ambiguity (one can see our discomfort with that phrasing by watching the excellent Schoolhouse Rock on the Declaration -- if you haven't watched it recently, check out how they deal with pursuit of happiness).  Read as private happiness, Jefferson's formula is a good liberal equivalent of the more common "life, liberty, and property."  By that reading, government's main function is to protect individuals from encroachments on their private affairs, and at the same time to support those private activities, even if it takes government action to do so.  But read as public happiness, Jefferson is asserting that the opportunity to participate in collective self-government -- something that can only happen in some form of democratic republic -- is a core human right. 

Which gets us to the 1780s.  As Gordon Wood writes (see generally Part Four, especially Chapter X section 5), what alarmed the revolutionaries was that their assumption that an American republic would deliver both types of happiness was undermined by a turn away from public involvement: on the one hand, representative republican legislatures appeared shockingly prone to tyranny, and on the other hand the people seemed content to ignore politics entirely as long as they were left alone to enrich themselves.  Self-interest, in other words, appeared to be everywhere, and most shockingly it appeared to be perhaps the natural result of the revolution, thus making its higher goals self-negating.  Remove tyranny and establish republican institutions, and people will -- now that the threat of tyranny is gone -- turn away from public affairs to self-interest, thus establishing the conditions for a new, democratic version of tyranny. 

In my reading of Madison -- which I should say from the start is contentious, and hardly the consensus view -- the Constitution is a brilliant attempt to escape from that trap.  Centuries of Whig and republican thought had assumed that their project could only succeed if the people were virtuous, and public spirited.  Madison says: what if we turn the tables on all of that?  What if we take self-interest as a virtue, or at any rate as inevitable in a democracy, but use it against itself?  The genius of Madison's Constitution is that it encourages political participation even if it is originally motivated by selfish gain or ambition, but then counts on the complexity of the system to force people to actively engage in politics if they hope to get anything done. Simply registering one's preference or making demands will never be enough.  Moreover, by separating institutions through checks and balances and federalism, not only is tyranny avoided in the sense that private citizens are protected, (good for private happiness!), but also in the sense that opportunities multiply for citizens to become meaningfully involved in public affairs (good for public happiness!). 

Of course, if you don't believe that participation in politics can be good for its own sake, then you aren't very likely to care very much about that latter virtue of Madisonian democracy.  Even if you are, you may still believe that the costs of Madisonian democracy, the difficulties in translating popular preferences into government policy, aren't worth the benefits (although as usual, I'd caution people about assuming that election results can be easily translated into preferences for specific public policy choices).  And even if neither of those things bother you, if it turns out that capacity for enjoying and thriving at politics is unevenly distributed (the way that capacity for self-fulfillment in, say, music or fine art appear to be unevenly distributed), then it's not clear how we can justify the unequal influence over government that would result from natural sorting.  In other words, I don't really have any answers at the end of this long post.  What I think I can say is that those who write about public happiness, either in their personal stories or as political theorists, tend to emphasize the notion of discovery: people who became involved in politics for other reasons, whether it was self-interest or to right what they saw as an injustice, were surprised at what they found -- you hear versions of the idea that they felt truly alive for the first time, or something to that effect.  One could even perhaps bring in Ronald Reagan's notion of finding "the rest of me" in politics, no?  All of which suggests to me that one should not necessarily count the apathy of the uninvolved to be conclusive.  I'll end with a quote from Arendt (On Revolution, Penguin ed., 131):
And Jefferson's true notion of happiness comes out very clearly...when he lets himself go in a mood of playful and sovereign irony and concludes one of his letters to Adams as follows: "May we meet there again, in Congress, with our antient Colleagues, and receive with them the seal of approbation 'Well done, good and faithful servents.'" Here, behind the irony, we have the candid admission that life in Congress, the joys of discourse of legislation, of transacting business, of persuading and being persuaded, were to Jefferson no less conclusively a foretaste of eternal bliss to come than the delights of contemplation had been for medieval piety. 


  1. The distinction I would make, along with a lot of 18th-Century writers, is that the purpose of Democracy is not to create a perfect government, or even the best of all possible governments, but to create a democratic people.

    Walt Whitman: Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs—in religion, literature, colleges, and schools—democracy in all public and private life, and in the army and navy.

    That's from the wonderful essay Democratic Vistas.

    I'm not sure it all falls under happiness as such; I don't think Walt Whitman would describe it that way. But I don't think that it needs to fall under happiness to be described as a moral good independent of its ability to govern.

    Noelle McAfee has some points about this in her book, where she talks about the competing storylines of a democratic journey from dependence to independence versus that from silence to participation.


  2. A couple of things. First, while I yield to no one in my admiration for Madison as a political philosopher, it's helpful not to overthink the Framing, which was in large part a response to the demands of bondholders who were alarmed that too many state governments had fallen under the control of the debtor classes. Never mind Charles Beard; see Woody Holton's much more recent _Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution_ for more on this. The Framers were looking for ways to solve immediate political problems, like: protecting the "sanctity of contracts" (i.e. bondholders' ability to collect money); allowing enough democracy to satsify popular demands while still seeing that real power remained in the hands of The Right People (aka "men of virtue"); and, of course, reconciling what were already serious rifts between Northern / industrializing / large states and Southern / agrarian / smaller states (not that the categories aligned perfectly, but you know what I mean).

    Second, the two basic rationales given here for democracy miss a couple of other important ones:

    3. A political community belongs to no one other than itself, and therefore has the right to make its own rules. And any member of the political community has a right to participate in that rule-making, not just because it might lead to better outcomes or as a matter of "happiness" however defined, but simply because s/he IS in fact a member of that community, a constituent part of an agency that does not answer to any other agency.

    4. As Amartya Sen argues (with respect to developing countries), you need democracy in order to keep people from starving to death. That is, it's important that people's needs (e.g. "our crops are failing, we need food") exert pressure on the regime to see that those needs are met.

    That last might be a variant of the "better outcomes" argument. But I think it's distinguishable for some purposes -- for instance, even if you don't believe that public involvement GENERALLY leads to better policymaking, you might still grant that SOME basic line of communication between people and rulers is essential, long-term, if you're even going to have a viable and stable society.

  3. I should add that I think that #3 is, more or less, the argument that Jefferson and his colleagues make in the Declaration, so it also has a Founding pedigree.

  4. Jeff,

    Thanks for the comment. On the history...well, we're probably going to disagree, and I encourage everyone who is interested to read more -- I won't claim any special expertise at all. As far as common ground, I certainly agree that the Framers were dealing with practical political problems of the sort you describe, and that a lot of what they did was driven by expedience, not grand democratic theory. I do think, however, that to some extent they, or at least Madison, did think of some of these problems as troubling symptoms, rather than (simply) as a question of rejiggering institutions to produce different winners. YMMV.

    On your #3 and #4, yup. I don't mean to imply either that my list is exhaustive, or that I endorse one particular view. I do think that those who consider democracy to be inherently on the side of the poor (I'm trying to remember without the book in front of me...I think Ian Shapiro called democracy something like the "ideology of opposition", but that doesn't sound quite right, but it's something like that) are mistaken. But I'm certainly not saying that I think all "better outcomes" justifications are wrong, by any means.

  5. Random thought after reading this, Mr. Bernstein:

    If you don't subscribe already, I would highly recommend Bruce Carlson's podcast, "My History Can Beat Up Your Politics." He posts roughly weekly, episodes generally 20-40 minutes long. Well worth the listen. The format takes a contemporary issue and draw parallels to past events in US history.

  6. I carelessly left out the URL:

  7. As I said, I yield to no one in admiring Madison's intellect, so I'm not denying that the Framing was ALSO an exercise in political philosophy. Clearly Madison and a few others took the political crisis that Holton describes -- roughly, if over-simply, a conflict between the creditor and debtor classes of the 1780s -- as an opportunity to go back to first principles, think about what government is for and how it ideally should function, and then bring those ideas to bear, where possible, in designing a new system. This is wisdom: looking beyond the immediate problem to try to find solutions that are intellectually coherent and well-grounded and, therefore, will stand the test of time.

    But the key is "where possible." My point about overthinking is that we should be careful about assuming that because theoretical coherence was important to(some of) the Framers, and because their work proved relatively lasting, therefore coherence was achieved, and we can now explain any given feature of the system as the institutional expression of some meaningful political philosophy. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can't. Madison (?) himself grants this in Federalist #62, when he talks about equality of representation in the Senate. He calls that arrangement a "lesser evil," "evidently [= obviously] the result of compromise," and "the only option" that could be politically agreed upon. He says "it is superfluous to try, by the standard of theory, a part of the Constitution which is allowed on all sides to be the result, not of theory, but 'of a spirit of amity'" etc. (i.e. of a desire to get the hell out of that stifling room in Philadelphia with some kind of deal). And yet, I wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone today, usually on the right, defend the gross malapportionment of the Senate as some kind of timeless expression of the Framers' wisdom, if not the genius of America itself -- a claim even its own authors didn't make.

    On the point we're discussing now -- the rationale for democracy -- I'm not well-read enough in the founding literature to know what specifically Madison or the others said by way of theory. In general, I'd be surprised if the Framers imagined they were trying to encourage political participation, since it was political participation run riot (in their view) that was causing the problems in the states that led to the pressure for a new Constitution. (That's how Holton tells the story, anyway.) I think a fair amount of their rhetoric of "virtue" was code for "let's restore power to an elite that sees public finance and debt from the responsible perspective of us rentiers." That's not to say they had nothing ELSE in mind or that their only thoughts were self- (or class-) interested. But objectively, the Constitution tended to centralize rather than disperse power, and it set up a lot of screens between popular demands and government policy. This was obvious to its original critics, who grasped right away that they were in a power struggle, not a philosophy seminar.

    (continued in the next comment…..)

  8. Sorry, got some error message there. (Maybe “blogspot” disagrees with my analysis.) Anyway, all that said, I don't know which Framers would endorse which actual features of our system on grounds of public happiness, participation or virtue, let alone agree that the theory had proven correct over two centuries of historical experience. It could be that Madison or Hamilton (who disagree a lot) would tell you today, if either could, that the degree and kind of democracy they felt they had to accept in 1787 was a sharp departure from what they believed, ideally, would conduce to happiness as they understood it. Or they might say that they felt their design came out pretty well in those terms in 1787, but isn't remotely what they would NOW see as needed to bring happiness to an advanced industrial society with hundreds of millions of people -- that even their own theory(ies) would dictate an entirely different approach to democracy today. I just don't know, and I'm not sure how valuable it is to try to figure this out except as a kind of historical parlor game.

  9. Hmmm...I definitely agree that it's silly to claim that specific points of the Constitution have to be right if we agree with Madison's political philosophy -- and that there's no legit justification for the malapportionment of the Senate. Also, I'm not claiming my reading of Madison for anyone but him; I see it as a significant break from the others.

    As far as the usefulness of the depends. If we're purely interested in history, then, of course, getting the historical details correct matters a lot but it doesn't necessarily tell us anything about today. If, on the other hand, our interest is in understanding democracy, then it doesn't matter so much whether my reading of Madison is ultimately correct or not -- what matters is whether the democracy I ascribe to Madison does, in fact, tell us something important about democracy in general (and whether different reading might give us a richer idea of democracy, or not).

  10. Well, certainly there's nothing wrong with identifying a certain idea as "Madisonian," or with looking to Madison or the Framers for political ideas. My point was about the links between three things: the Framers' philosophies or intentions; the political system they actually came up with after a bunch of compromises and expedients; and what that system actually delivers, especially 220 years later. Each of these is interesting and worth investigating in its own right, but I think the links among them are pretty weak, which means it's very tricky to draw inferences about any one of them from the others -- for instance, that the American system encourages political participation, therefore it's designed to do that, therefore James Madison (or others) must have had that aim in mind.

  11. Jonathan,

    Thanks for this post, and for the thoughtful thread it inspired.

    Another facet of the history (current events for those living then) of the 1780s was, I believe, the very real threat that---for a variety of reasons---the "united states" would disunite into multiple smaller federations (e.g., New England, the Tidewater states, the mid-Atlantic) which would then 1) be more prone to fighting each other, and 2) be more easily picked off and recolonized by the European powers.

    By vesting the federal government with more power than it had under the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, among other things, created an increased self-interest for the states and their citizens to remain united, and to participate in their common governance.

    Notions of "self-interest" (and how to define it), and the tension between "the world as it v. the world as it should be" were central to Obama's training in political philosophy (i.e., his brief community organizing career) and seem to have remained part of his thinking today.

    P.S. I'd guess that Obama has read and discussed the Federalist Papers as well as Hannah Arendt. (And if he didn't, his organizing mentors likely did.)

  12. "... if it turns out that capacity for enjoying and thriving at politics is unevenly distributed (the way that capacity for self-fulfillment in, say, music or fine art appear to be unevenly distributed), then it's not clear how we can justify the unequal influence over government that would result from natural sorting."

    I would say a large measure of unease comes from the greater capacity that those with resources have at engaging in politics: that as long as there is an inequality of material outcome -- which the vast majority of the country is more than comfortable with -- and as long as those materials can be translated into political influence and power, than there is an imbalance of political influence and power -- a result which bothers a good deal of Americans, I'd wager a majority.

    This is a big impetus behind "getting money out of politics"...

  13. I'm intrigued by the notion of the "capacity for enjoying and thriving at politics", and further by the notion that it may be (likely is?) unevenly distributed.

    Jonathan, I think the fear of "the unequal influence over government that would result from natural sorting" is at least partly answered by a Constitution that "counts on the complexity of the system to force people to actively engage in politics if they hope to get anything done. Simply registering one's preference or making demands will never be enough."

    So, even those who don't have much of a "capacity for enjoying and thriving at politics" will participate for their self-interested reasons, thereby checking and balancing well...people like us.


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