Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When Madisonian Democracy Breaks Down

Hans Noel is blogging Madison and parties over at the new blog. I agree with much of his approach to Madison, but I figured I should jump in and give my own version of this, which overlaps with his.

Madison, as I see it, considers majority tyranny the worst enemy of democracy.* I think he sees it primarily in practical terms: under true majority rule, the minority will revolt and, if possible, impose some other form of government, because permanent minorities will be better off if democracy is overthrown. Madison is acutely aware that the history of republics is one of failure, usually before very long. No one has ever figured out how to make a democracy last, and Madison thinks that the trick, which involves making it very difficult for majorities to act. He proposes to do that two ways. In Federalist 10 he suggests a very large polity, so that interests are diverse and therefore no natural majorities will form (that is, no single faction will be very large). And in Federalist 51, he proposes a scheme of checks and balances; by breaking up the government into many competing branches, unified control will be difficult.

As Hans says, this focus on faction, or what we would call interest groups, overlooks that which did not yet exist: political parties, which can knit together smaller interests into a majority and which can co-ordinate across branches of government. Still, I'd argue that this does not, in fact, under most conditions, violate Madison's plans.

I count three threats to Madison:

1. Everyone begins to care deeply about the exact same issue, especially one which appears to everyone to have only two choices. This is, essentially, the story of slavery; we can think of the Civil War as the consequence of everyone believing that everything hinged on slavery and all compromise positions disappeared, leaving only two choices.

2. The party one: everyone begins to be passionately partisan. In this case, not only are the stakes very high if your side loses and election, but a loss threatens to be permanent, because if everyone is partisan then there will be few if any swing voters.

3. Ideology. Everyone becomes convinced that all issues are linked together in some fashion so that if you support X then you also support Y and Z and A and B and C.

What they all have in common, I think you can see, is that they return to Madison's original problem: if elections are high-stakes and at least threaten to be permanent decisions, then the losers will prefer other options to democracy.

Now, we clearly in my view do not have a situation matching situation #1 or #3, at least among the general public. I'd argue that we also don't have a situation #2 situation, although we're closer to it than we once were.

So what to do? Hans suggests:
Rather than trying to fix our party system, Madison would advocate fixing out institutions, so that they would, in his words from Federalist 51, "oblige [government] to control itself." In short, we shouldn't be trying to fix our parties to make them work within our institutions. We should be trying to fix our institutions so that they can handle our parties.
I'm not sure where Hans is going next, so I won't try to guess. But what I think Madison would suggest is that the institution(s) needing fixing are the parties themselves, and that you do that by finding new and different incentives for party actors.

Can that be done? I really don't know. I guess I tend to think that the big problem is neither ideology nor partisanship, but something else that's wrong with the Republican Party that winds up with that party (1) undermining democratic norms and (2) advocating a principled aversion to compromise.

That's not to say that a round of institutional tinkering would necessarily be a bad thing; in particular, I do think that the current (post-1993, post-2009) de facto rules of the Senate are dysfunctional and should be reformed, and I've advocated other reforms in other areas. But while I certainly agree with Hans about Madison's point concerning the virtues of allowing participation in whatever form it winds up taking, I also don't know that we should necessarily take the current state of the parties as a given. And to the extent that governmental design can nudge everyone away from Madison's three problematic situations, that would be a good goal.

*Two clarifications: one is that yes, I know that Madison used a slightly different vocabulary, but I think we're better off translating into modern vocabulary; we should use "republic" and "democracy" as synonyms. And, yes, we cannot assume that the Constitution is the perfect embodiment of Madison's ideas, or that Madison's words written in the context of a political fight are always the best guide to what he thinks.


  1. I think of this as a self-correcting problem, albeit slowly. The GOP has clearly (to me) gone nuts. More specifically, its internal mechanisms have been taken over by nuts. But it seems to me that they cannot be this nutty and continue to win elections indefinitely. And as they become electorally weaker, I'd expect enterprising young operatives to recognize opportunities to be elected by being not-nuts.

    It's sort of an economic principle for me: eventually the unment demand for fiscally conservative, generally libertarian candidates will actually attract some of those people who don't naturally find a home in the Democratic party, but who live in purple statehouse districts, and the party will slowly swing back.

    If this theory is true, one place to look would be California's Assembly and Senate. The Republicans are largely a rump party in those bodies, so we could look to the purplish districts to see if there are any not-nuts Republican percolations happening. I haven't, but it sounds like a good thesis project for a masters student, doesn't it?

    1. I don't know, Anon. I think it is unwise to think that the American public, of whatever political persuasion, are very wise consumers of the products of the political economy. Mostly they aren't paying attention the vast majority of the time. When they do pay attention, they take their cues from party elites. That only breaks down in rather extreme situations, and only partially breaks down even then.

      This is where I don't know if I can buy Mr. Bernstein's more irenic views about the public. He is of the opinion that the public is not polarizing into hostile camps. Certainly we are not two hostile camps yet, I'll agree. But are we getting there? And does it really matter what ordinary members of the public think when, in most political situations, they really don't think at all. Given that the public largely takes its cues from political elites, and given that political elites are polarized and getting more so all the time, then the public in its functional behavior becomes more polarized. Whether this really matches actual public beliefs and perceptions is really not very important, or at most is only important in the long term. That is how we get a public that is currently giving the edge to the Republicans on the Congressional ballot, despite also clearly expressing disapproval of the GOP's core legislative program. If you want to come at it from the other side, I suppose you can also say it is how the President is ahead even when a majority of the public says that the economy is the key issue and say they disapprove of his economic performance. Maybe the public isn't polarized in its beliefs, but it is polarized in its effective actions (i.e. its voting patterns) and therefore its beliefs are quite irrelevant.

      So, I am very skeptical of public action and belief forcing a change in the GOP, at least until the behavior (not the beliefs, the behavior) of the public itself changes, and changes markedly. I also hope it doesn't come to that, since a catastrophe on the scale it would take to unsettle these patterns of behavior and deference to elites would be very harmful for everyone. [Also, I am using the term elite loosely, meaning basically political actors from which the public takes its cues: that may or may not be party elders or elected officials or anyone else that we would consider an elite more strictly speaking. Thus I would consider Tea Party actors to be political elites, even if they would deny the label].

      So I guess we need better elites. I don't know where we are going to get them, short of the kind of catastrophe we want to avoid. I just don't see what's in it for them in behaving more responsibly. And if there isn't anything in it for them, then resonsbiility isn't in the cards. So the catastrophe becomes more likely.

      The system will correct itself eventually. In that I agree with Anon. I just don't agree that this correction necessarily will come without great damage. I hope it will. I have expressed the hope on this blog before that if we can keep the lid on for twenty years or so demographic and economic change may provide the kind of fundamental shifts that will make responsible behavior more in line with elite interest. But the world is a cruel and dangerous place. Twenty years may be something we don't have.

  2. Aren't threats #2 and #3 related? It seems to me that people's opinions on issues are sometimes informed by their status as supporters of a given party. This could link unrelated issues together, and might be more powerful as people feel more intensely partisan.

  3. The problem is that our parties, particularly the GOP, have come to operate like parliamentary parties, but we don't have a parliamentary system. When parties are ideologically cohesive, giving the defeated minority a veto on policy -- or dividing powers so that both parties can claim recent, still-tenable electoral mandates -- is a formula for very confused policymaking at best. It creates the potential for demogaguery and sabotage that we currently see, in which the non-presidential party thwarts the president's policies and then denounces him as a failure, trading on the public's uncertainty about who's responsible for what. Demagoguery is exactly what Madison was anxious to avoid, so it's ironic that a Madisonian system actually helps create the conditions for it.

    We're obviously not going to trade in our system for a whole new one, so I don't know that there's any one solution to this. It's probably going to be a combination of stumbling along + minor tweaks + periodic crisis management + hoping for good luck, just as it's been through most of American history.

  4. When republics fail, what generally follows? Isn't it some form of oligarchy? Doesn't the flow of many 10's of millions of dollars into Wisconsin from uber-wealthy out-of-state special interests for next week's recall vote indicate that that is where we are heading? The spending ration vs the Dem challenger is > 25:1.

    Shouldn't this be threat number 4 to Madison? (Though I would rank it #1.) Money and power are fungible. A small, powerful economic elite is in full throttle to take over the Government, and Wisconsin is the battleground for this phase of the struggle.

    We're headed for either fascism or some 21st century version of feudalism - different manifestations of oligarchy. If Wisconsin falls, and Repubs win in Nov - which is what voter suppression as all about - then our democracy is finished.


    1. I'm sure plenty of Republicans thought Democrats were going to do this in the 1930s, what with getting down to ~80 house seats in '36 (from which they recovered slightly), then FDR breaking the third-term rule in 1940, at the same time as most liberal democracies in Europe had been literally dismantled...for all the predictions of fascism now, even poor Greece seems to giving the Nazis and communists a pass and going back to some boring old center-right party.

      Not that I'm optimistic in the short run, I just doubt anything like this stands up to genuine scrutiny in 40 years. Who's going to know who Scott Walker is in 2052?

  5. The enduring debate in republican political theory has always been about laws/institutions vs 'men'/character/virtue -- arguing over how much to emphasize either aspect or how to characterize the relationship between the two. Your very helpful analysis focuses on institutions and incentives created by them, which seems wholly appropriate given the perspective's grounding in contemporary political science. But doesn't one also have to eventually integrate an assessment or narrative about virtue and corruption, one that isn't purely a product of incentives and rational calculation? Now, this isn't so conducive to objectivity and clear policy recommendations, and it's very hard to do well, but it seems like values-based cultural critique has to be part of a more comprehensive interpretive explanation.

  6. But, as a number of the comments above suggest (Anastasios' and Jeff's in particular, and my own reaction to Anon's hope), if the problem is the parties (and one of them in particular), and the parties don't seem to have any interest in fixing themselves (a la my thought in response to Anon: what did the GOP do after defeats in 2006 and 2008? Double down)----what's the solution?

    And this is where I start to go down Jeff's road: maybe the solution is to make our system more parliamentarian. If our parties are going to behave like parliamentary parties, let's give them a parliament.

    1. If I had to guess what Hans Noel meant by fixing our institutions so they could handle our parties is probably to bow to the inevitable and make our system more parliamentary in nature. The main problem with that is that this requires amending the Constitution, which is notoriously difficult and treated as sacred writ by too many Americans to even consider it.

      The best you could do under the current system is to change Senate rules and get rid of the filibuster, everything is an up or down vote. It won't solve all our problems but if you get rid of the filibuster than you take away the advantage of being a parliamentary party in a Madisonian system.

    2. Unfortunately, eliminating the filibuster wouldn't be enough; the Madisonian design would still allow both parties to claim popular mandates and to control parts of the government at the same time. That's the basic flaw. What Madison didn't realize is that factions were bound to develop into parties, and once they did, the cure for factionalism wasn't endless checking and balancing, but almost the reverse: allowing one group a more or less clear shot at governing for a time, followed by a free election in which the people could judge the results and decide whether to keep that group in power or replace it with the other one. That's what we're not going to get short of wholesale reform. That said, though, eliminating the filibuster would be a step in the right direction.

    3. Jeff, this is true but eliminating the filibuster would get rid of the ability of the minority party to do a lot of mischief. In the Senate, they would at least have to vote. The problem with lets make America parliamentary is that its either going to involve a lot of Constitutional amendments or a new constitution from a constitutional convention. Both are unlikely to occur because lots of Americans believe our current Madisonian system to be sacrosanct. A constitutional convention is going to include a lot of people who are going to want to make a super Madisonian system.

      Besides eliminating the filibuster, are there any reforms to move America into a parliamentary system that do not involve changing the constitution?

    4. Let's make the line of thinking a little more specific even yet (I'm not advocating any course of action, I'm just trying to clarify some points and their implications).

      1) We agree, more or less, that the Madisonian system is currently not functioning well;

      2) We agree, I think, that this is due to parties behaving in a parliamentary fashion, which is not comapatible with a Madisonian system;

      THEREFORE, we must either;

      1) Change the parties, or

      2) Change the system.

      The impasse we reach is that neither seems to be a viable option. The parties can't really be "changed," they have to change themselves and they don't show any signs of being interested in that. Changing the system is more promising in that sense, but it is very difficult. The usual changes mentioned (filibuster reform, etc) may not go far enough (if parties are really determined to behave in a parliamentary fashion, then a bicameral legislature with distorted representation still allows enormous scope for mischief), and a full-fledged constitutional change would run into all the problems outlined above. At this point we appear to have three options:

      1) Let things get worse until the constitutional order definitively fails, or

      2) Accept that regional differences make the US ungovernable, and accept the necessity of the breakup of the country into smaller, more efficient and more governable successor states, or

      3) A combination of the the two

      I'm not saying the secession (or breakup or devolution) is the answer, I'm just pointing out that the internal logic of this discussion can lead that way pretty quickly.

    5. Re: #2: Ha, that would be "The US Is the EU But In Slow-Motion Reverse Option"!

    6. Doesn't secession have the same problems as turning the United States into a parliamentary system? While not technically against the Constitution, the Civil War established that it is impossible for states to leave the Union.

      Solution one is simply unpaltable and unacceptable from a liberal point of view. Heightening the contradictions does not work as a strategy and leads to way too much suffering.

  7. Lee,

    As I said, I'm not advocating secession, I'm just pointing out that these kinds of discussions logically head in that direction. As to your point about the Civil War, although legal and constitutional scholars make claims about the precedents it established, I think most historians (that is my current profession, by the way) would say that it simply established that the southern states of that time motivated by the causes of that time could not successfully secede from the Union of the that time. It says nothing about future possiblities (historians are extremely allergic to drawing any kind of rules or models from historical instances, it is one reason that the they don't get along very well with sociologists and political scientists).

    Let us try a thought experiment -- and that is all this is, not an attempt at any kind of real analysis. Let us say that the constitutional order continues to fail, with escalating crises and interminable disfunction. Let us say that disgust with the present order begins to build across the country, but in different ways in different regions. The South longs for a return to a culturally homogenous polity with strong local communities. You hear more and more in the Northeast about the European and Canadian models. The Mountain West sees its libertarian political tendencies grow ever stronger. And California begins to emphasize it unique cultural and social identity.

    The system could survive if any one of those groups decided to pull out. That, arguably, would be a situation similar to 1860. But what if two decided to go at once? What if a truly radical set of Southern politicians began to make Rick Perry type talk in earnest just as California made a move for greater autonomy? What if organized groups in New York joined in, and the libertarian movements in the west decided their time had come?

    Would the remaining forces for unity be strong enough to stop them? More to the point, would they even want to? Remember, it isn't all that unusual even now to find people saying that the Civil War was a mistake, and that it would have been better just to let the Confederacy go and good riddance. Loose talk, to be sure, and not indicative of any real danger -- yet. Keeping the Union together in 1860 was a LOT harder than most people realize, and the issues were arguably simpler than the scenario we are talking about here. For that matter putting it together in the first place was a lot harder than most people realize, and possible only because the Founders ruthlessly and deliberately excluded their opponents, first the Tories then the Anti-Constitutionalists, from first the Continental Congresses and then the Constitutional Convention. These forces were strong and represented very large segments of the population, and had they been included in the conversations might well have had their way, or prevented the Founders from having theirs. But the Founders were, as most people except the Tea Party forget, ruthless revolutionaries, and and not afraid to act like it at crucial moments.

    People sometimes say we need men like the Founders again (or like Lincoln). If there is one thing I suspect most historians would agree about, it's that we better profoundly hope that we don't need people like that, because it means that things have gotten very bad -- and it also means that the outcome might be much different than the people who long for such leaders would expect.

  8. Now, having done a thought experiment, and a rather simplistic one at that, let me lay out a scenario that I hope might get us out of this mess eventually.

    1) By hook or by crook, we manage to avoid shooting ourselves in the foot for about twenty years.

    2) Demographic and economic change forces the parties to realize that their long-term future is better suited to behavior more in accord with the Madisonian system. This won't be sunlight and unicorns, by the way. The economic changes will be extremely painful and hurt an awful lot of people. The demographic changes will lead to enormous tension and distrust and hateful behavior. But in the end we will have a polity with greatly increased diversity, but, perhaps paradoxically, a more shared understanding of the economic and social challenges facing America. That is minorities will be empowered and better able to advocate for change, while majorities will be less able to ignore problems and claim that the issues of the time don't affect them personally. At that point we will all be in the same world. It won't be a very pleasant world, in a lot of ways. In 2035 people of all persuasions may look back to 1965 with longing even greater than that some liberals feel today. But with a little bit of luck it won't be Bladerunner, either, and we will at least have, once again, a shared basis for discussion.

    3) Some needed reforms will ease the most difficult problems, including filibuster reform and nominations reforms, and also reforms designed to encourage or even mandate voting.

    If that happens we may have a situation that is difficult, divided, and more chaotic than today at the grassroots level, but which nevertheless actually can serve as the basis for overall stability and long-term progress, as it will be a situation in which both parties have greater incintive to cooperate with the Madisonian system (mainly, I must admit, because the groups that make up the inflexible core of current GOP rejectionist tactics will be relatively much weaker).

    1. Lee asked if there are other tweaks that would take us in a more parliamentary direction without needing constitutional amendments. I expect there are, although none is leaping to mind at the moment. But yes, the problem with the whole discussion is that there is no Archimedean point outside the system from which you can reform the system. Political actors themselves have to want reform for reasons arising out of the incentives and other features of the current system.

      That said, I am (tentatively) more optimistic than Anastasios. I think some of the craziness will calm down once the economy recovers and there's another boom, which I do think will happen. I also think those conditions will ease -- not solve, but ease -- the longer-term fiscal problems that Anastasios is alluding to, and it will be possible to patch things together well enough to get us through another few decades.

      I also think that the current craziness is largely a product of cultural panic. But the most culturally panicked people at any given moment tend to be an older and somewhat more isolated minority, and over time, they die out and/or become assimilated to the modern world. They stop hearing messages from even conservative elites about how the gays are taking away Christmas, or whatever, so they stop panicking about that. Granted, they or their successors will be given new messages about new things to panic about. But that has been a perennial fact in America and overall has merely slowed progress without stopping it. I'm inclined to think -- again, tentatively -- that there's an internal logic to organizing modern societies that argues for going certain ways and not others, that elites pick up on this and that eventually the masses get the memo too through their political leaders and Fox News. For instance, non-nationalized health-care systems aren't just costly and inefficient, they damage competitiveness. So eventually both parties, albeit for different reasons, will want them reformed. There'll be some kabuki dance that allows the right to climb down without appearing to, that gives supposed staunch defenders of the free market (for instance) a way of accepting the new plan while pretending that a socialistic reform isn't "socialism." We've been through it before; it isn't pretty, it isn't a single grand solution, but it works. So far. (Again, this optimism is provisional and is subject to change without notice.)

    2. Jeff, I am much more pessimistic about this than you. Lets use your healthcare example. Like you, I believe that nationalized healthcare systems are more costly and efficient than non-nationalized ones and more just to. However, I think the evidence has been reasoanbly been clear on this since at least the end of WWII if not Bismarck's chancellorship in the German Empire.

      Yet, it is still a dogma of conservative fatith that America has the best healthcare in the world despite all the evidence. They opposed all efforts at nationalized healthcare since the Progressive Era. Many stll want to get rid of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They can't obviously get away with saying this but their intentions are barely concealed. There is no evidence of this changing.

      So I can't really see anything happening that would cause the decrazificaiton of the GOP.

    3. Lee, I certainly can't promise that things will go the way I'm suggesting. But what gives me hope is that "dogmas of conservative faith" are more elastic than they appear. The old-age welfare programs were also dogmatically opposed; today, Republican politicians pose as their staunch defenders. It's a pose, yes, but even so, it suggests that the dogmas of the moment are constructed and reconstructed as needed to suit the changing alignment of interests. It also shows how readily the old dogmas are forgotten, i.e. proven not really to have been as dogmatic as they seemed at the time. Jim Crow was dogma, not so long ago, and then it wasn't, partly because it was ultimately bad for business. Likewise, on health care, it's in the interest of capitalists to offload those costs onto the government, so eventually that's going to happen, and the right will then pose as defenders of that new order. As I say, it isn't pretty and it's not a grand solution, but this is how progressive change eventually happens. We've seen it many times in the past, so I'm pretty sure we'll be seeing it again.

    4. P.S. to the above. I mentioned Jim Crow; as this blog and others noted, National Review published an article in recent days arguing that the GOP has always been the party of racial justice. This was rightly and widely mocked, but if we wanted to, we could also admire and applaud the creativity it brought to bear in redefining conservative dogma. What happened to the onetime defense of the "rights" of white communities, businesses, the South, etc. to write discrimination into law, a dogma expressed among other places in that very same magazine? Well, it's gone, and in its place, we have today's dogma that legal segregation is wrong -- so, some righty scribe gets to work arguing that conservatives have always believed this. It's sad but cheering at the same time.

      We're rapidly seeing the same thing happen with gay rights and same-sex marriage, and in the future, it wouldn't surprise me to see it happen with nationalized health care too. There obviously is no true fundamental principle on the right opposing this; if there were, no conservative could ever defend Medicare, even as a pose. So I fully expect that once we've institutionalized Medicare for all, the National Review and its ilk will point to land-grant colleges, Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system by way of informing us that the GOP has always been the party of government-guided collective provision. In fact, maybe they'll even assign that piece to the same guy.

  9. Howdy everyone,

    Just stopping by to mention how much I enjoyed reading the discussion on this one. Obviously I disagree with, well, lots and lots of people on this, and while I don't have a lot of hope of persuading anyone, I will of course continue to make my case. But alas not in this comments thread.

  10. Mr. Bernstein,

    If you can convince me that I am just a curmudgeonly and pessimistic gasbag, I will gladly fly in the wind, :-).


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