No, democracy is not “doomed”

Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias has become so despondent that there is no longer an award named after him that he has decided that American democracy is doomed. Though I have to say, he pretty much hedged his bets:

Some day — not tomorrow, not next year, but probably sometime before runaway climate change forces us to seek a new life in outer-space colonies — there is going to be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else.

So yeah, American democracy stands a good chance of having gone the way of the dodo by the time the Earth is dead and the human race is living among the stars. And I’d wager it has an even better chance of being gone by the time all those stars explode and the universe collapses back into itself. So you might want to store some water and dried food in the basement, just in case.

Still, hedging aside there’s little doubt Yglesias believes that American democracy today is the equivalent of the sixth season of the X-Files. Sure, it still looks pretty and the ratings seem strong, but the decay and absence of new working ideas is disintegrating the very foundation of this precious thing we hold so dear and it’s only a matter of time before we elect Robert Patrick and Annabelle Gish to the White House.[1] Yglesias’s reasons are what you might expect:

  • The two major parties don’t get along, are seemingly always gridlocked, and have a hard time getting anything done.
  • The executive branch is growing in power.
  • The country itself is deeply polarized.
  • Politicians resort to “Constitutional hardball,” which Yglesias quotes Mark Tushnet to define as legal and political strategies “that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understanding.”

Yglesias largely blames all of the above on the increased focus on ideological purity — or as one plucky young writer from the sticks once described it, “the creeping victory of being consistent of being judicious.” (If you’d like a more comprehensive take on his position, I invite you to peruse the posts of our Liberal Democracy Symposium, where many here argued Yglesias’s points back in 2012.) Despite these dire predictions, however, things are not so gloomy as they appear — or, at least, as dire as they appear to Yglesias.

As regular readers here are well aware, I share Yglesias’s concern about ideology in today’s electronic-media driven world. After all, ideological dogma carries the whiff of potential danger even in the best of times. In today’s climate it’s far too easy for us to create a steady stream of information — accurate or not — that adheres to our ideological narrative.  With no dissenting data to force us to question our dogma, we run a far higher risk of being caught in a downward spiral toward bad and fundamentally flawed decisions. Where Yglesias and I part ways, then, is what this ultimately means.  For Yglesias, it means we are clearly at death’s door. For me, it means the possibility an increasing number of terrible public policy decisions that could take us years or decades from which to untangled ourselves. That’s bad, but it’s not exactly dire.

I’ve noted before that the men’s rights movement is a good microcosm of this phenomena with closed-loop ideology.  Watching what has happened to the MRM community over the past five years is like watching the past twenty years of movement conservatism along with its worst potential twenty-year future on fast forward. But here’s another thing to remember about the MRM faithful: For all of their distasteful bluster, their messages are entirely symbolic. Yes, there are a few who walk the no-more-women-forever-I-mean-it walk, but the vast majority of them live pretty mundane and mainstream lives. For most of them it’s the symbolism of what their leaders say that drives, not the reality of that content. I guarantee you that if you could waive a magic wand and give the so-called Men Going Their Own Way the choice to go to magical land where women didn’t exist, 95% would balk. And here’s the thing: in this way, they are not so different from the rest of us.

When you look at the the Internet, cable news, the punditry, and the rhetoric of the more junior class of politician in this country it really does appear that we are polarized.  Indeed, from that vantage point it appears that we are already on the brink of the very civil war or coup Yglesias hopes and doubts we can avoid.  But that’s all a lie, packaged and sold to us by the Internet, cable news, the punditry, and the rhetoric of the more junior class of politician in this country.

The truth is that for a country of 300+ we’re actually remarkably on the same page — even for the issues we think divide us the most.  We just hate admitting it to ourselves and each other.

Look: The reason the Democrats passed the ACA and not universal healthcare wasn’t that they “spinelessly gave in.” They didn’t pass universal health care because most people — including democrats — really didn’t want universal healthcare.[2]  After they are done yelling at one another, most Americans are okay with abortions up to a certain point and not so much after.  We’ve totally managed to get the so-called polarization of climate change to allow us all to be where deep down we really want to be: Concerned enough about global warming that it gets talked about, but not so concerned that our lives are actually inconvenienced in any meaningful way.  Taxes, safety nets, affirmative action, public works, education — these are all things that the vast majority of us are really pretty close to one another on.

Sure, we’ll cheer when our team takes one side on the environment and hiss as the other offers a counter arguemnt. But like MRMs who cheer essays of a world where only men exist, it’s mostly symbolic.  We all talk a good game, but try floating the idea of quadrupling gas taxes in a blue state or taking away public schools in a red one and see how many state offices you get elected to. And if you don’t believe me, wait and see what happens if SCOTUS guts the ACA.  I will bet you a round of top shelf scotch that within a month the GOP will be floating a bill that looks exactly like the ACA with a “Now With Smaller Government!” sticker slapped on the cover.

In fact, I’ve always found it interesting that people who lament on Tuesday that we are hopelessly polarized are always the same people who lament on Thursdays that our country has become so homogenized.  And when I say “always,” I mean it. Because none of this new, really.

One of the inherent problems with those of us who are pundits, politicians or political junkies is that we tend to see everything through the lens that tells us that we are the most important thing in history, and therefore we must be living it its most monumental time.  That’s why ever since I first got interested in politics back as a teen, the Yglesias’s of the world have been convinced that what they see before them is a harbinger of either the end of times of some wonderful new Utopia that will be the End of History.  But of course, it never is.  It’s all just stuff. And maybe the best way to illustrate what I mean and take us out is this:

In his essay, Yglesias leans heavily on the Senate filibuster.  He points out — rightly — that it’s largely broken. But that doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. A dysfunctional filibuster isn’t a sign of the American armageddon.  It’s just this thing that used to work okay that now doesn’t work so well. If you look in the rearview mirror, you’ll see out entire history is littered with such discarded devices and mechanisms.  The filibuster itself is one of those things we invented on the fly as a quick fix way back when.  It isn’t in the Constitution any more than whichever of Obama’s actions you think are unconstitutional is . It’s just something that Aaron Burr once noticed could be used if you squinted really hard when looking at the way the Senate rules were worded.  The Senate filibuster might survive as is, or the rules for how you filibuster might be changed, or it might be changed entirely. Any of these things can happen, and it does not flow from either that democracy must tumble.

So yeah, I won’t take Yglesias’s bet that by the time the Earth dies and the human race is living in outer space American democracy might be a historical footnote. But I’d also bet him a good chunk of change that our children’s children’s children will be be celebrating it during America’s quadcentenial.

 

[1] We can all quibble about who is the cigarette smoking man who happily leads us to our doom in this analogy.  I’m going on record here and saying it’s the Kardashians.

[2] They will eventually, but that’s a topic for another day.

 

[Picture via wikia]

 

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49 thoughts on “No, democracy is not “doomed”

  1. You touch on my objection to Yglesias’s piece, which is that he acts like the Filibuster is an immovable object, or at least virtually so. It’s not. And if the filibuster goes, so too does a lot of the things we’re talking about.

    I’m temperamentally fond of the filibuster, but in its current form it’s not just broken in the sense that it’s being abused and preventing legislation, but it’s broken in the sense that it is being used to justify expanding the executive along the vector Yglesias is talking about. Whatever problems I have with his piece, though, I think it has the virtue of pointing out that vector.

    But a whole lot of it really comes down to the fillibuster, which is nowhere in the Constitution and requires the approval of only one house to appeal. To the extent that it’s negating congressional power and strengthening the executive, it’s because congress and congress alone has allowed it to. Before we reach the point of presidential dictatorship, I’m suspecting that they will reconsider that stance.

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    • But the filibuster isn’t what made immigration not pass, which is what caused the increment of executive aggression along the vector Yg. describes that I think is what proximately has spurred this round of handwringing.

      It’s not quite as fundamental as Y says, which is simply that both branches are independently popularly elected. But it’s not just or mainly the filibuster either.

      It’s something else: that for two years out of every presidential term, one of the chambers was elected by a different electorate from the one that elected the president and the previous Congress. Also, that every other round of redistricting is performed by legislators that were elected by such an electorate (a non-presidential one).

      The filibuster is part of it, though.

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      • The filibuster has contributed greatly to an environment where it’s easy for presidents and their supporters to believe that Congress cannot actually be expected to pass laws, and where it’s difficult for congress to even respond to an executive action by forcing the president to veto subsequent bills clarifying their opposition.

        It helps make things like the executive amnesty something more than just bypassing a Congress with the audacity not to do what the president wants them to.

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      • I mean, I agree that it’s not all the filibuster. But it’s the largest component and, in my view, the #1 thing that renders congress impotent, which in turn helps justify executive action. And over the timeline that Yglesias and Matthews are talking about, it’s the biggest contributor to the imperial presidency. Far moreso than the Democrats’ recent inability to win mid-term elections or any of the other particulars of the Obama era. The filibuster and congressional impotence transcends which party is in power where, and continues to build over time.

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      • it’s the largest component and, in my view, the #1 thing that renders congress impotent, which in turn helps justify executive action. And over the timeline that Yglesias and Matthews are talking about, it’s the biggest contributor to the imperial presidency. Far moreso than the Democrats’ recent inability to win mid-term elections or any of the other particulars of the Obama era. The filibuster and congressional impotence transcends which party is in power where, and continues to build over time.

        Yeah, I’m not buying any of that without pretty involved analysis. It’s a factor, and I won’t insist I know it’s not maybe narrowly the greatest factor, but I’m not at all accepting it on assertion. Literally everything would look hugely different today if the 2010 electorate were exactly the same as the 2008 electorate, or simply hadn’t existed. Meanwhile, despite all the (rightful – I’m as big a filibuster critic as, well, you certainly) complaining about it, ultimately the major, major stuff that was put on the agenda by the 2008 election did pass, or at least enough to call at least that period generally responsive to voting results. Things like the public option were the victim of the filibuster, but not things like th Recovery, Affordable Care, or Dodd-Frank Acts writ large. The debt ceiling and shutdown fights were a function primarily of House. Immigration was a casualty of House conservatives. Etc. and etc.

        That all flies in the face of your view. I can be persuaded, but that’s a lot going against it already and it’s all right off the top of my head.

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  2. Good stuff. The good ol US of A has been far more screwed up than now. We were pretty F’d up before the Civil War. Of course that took a war to settle which was bad, but we were far more disunited with an unworkable political framework. Indeed there is wide agreement on many if not most issues not that many people want to see it. Even our economic problems, which are significant, are far from dooming us as many people want to convince us. ( Social Security isn’t DOOMED)

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  3. I agree. One thing to note is that our increasing partisanship is of a particular sort. It’s not that right and left are moving apart from each other, so much as that most of the people who self-identify as conservatives are all sorting themselves into one party and people who self-identify as progressives into the other.

    For all the rhetorical flourishes and mutual accusations of radicalism and extremism, the Republican Party is still very much a center-right party and the Democrats are still very much center-left. The thing that is getting extreme is the rhetoric and that is probably, in large measure, a means for each party to differentiate itself and rally their supporters despite the fact that, policy wise, the parties are pretty damn close.

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    • I disagree that policy wise, the Democratic and Republican parties are close. The Democratic Party believes that things like universal healthcare is important. It risked a considerable amount of capital in 2008 and 2009 in order to finally pass something resembling a universal healthcare plan for the United States. Republicans deny the importance of universal healthcare. They have spent several years denouncing and trying various means to repeal the ACA.

      This is the most obvious difference that I can think of at the moment. There are plenty of other incidents that show that the Democratic Party and Republican Party are further apart in beliefs and policy than they were at any other time except during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

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      • Yes, the Democrats “risked a tremendous amount of capital” to pass a health care bill that looks an awful lot like the system that the last Republican residential nominee instituted when he was governor of Massachusetts.

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      • And I doubt that when people thought about what “healthcare reform” meant, they didn’t think it meant that the government would make it illegal to not have health insurance.

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      • , first Mitt Romney was working with a very Democratic legislature in a Democratic leaning state rather than a Republican one in a Republican leaning state. We do not know if Mitt Romney would past healthcare legislation if he was governor of Idaho. Mitt Romney also had to basically repudiate what he did in Massachusetts in order to get the Republican nomination in 2012.

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  4. I, for one, agree with Matt. (Damn it pains me to agree with someone I find tedious, annoying, and a total tard) But not for the reasons he lists. As I’ve said before, all empires fall. We’re an empire. We’re going to fall and there will be a new global power. Whether we end up like the UK or Russia will depend upon too many factors.

    I also think that “democracy” as it’s currently practiced in Western Europe IS doomed. It’ll fail and it will be replaced. The CONCEPT will live on and will probably be tried again, hopefully more effectively. A few hundred years isn’t long in the scheme of the existence of mankind.

    Why will it fail? There’s never enough money to satisfy the wants of the electorate, even if you 100% print it. Eventually the pyramid scheme collapses.

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      • As someone once dear to me once said, “language evolves”. We’ve moved beyond tard and gay as being offensive. They are now just schoolboy teasing.

        Get with the program Kazzy :p

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      • Let’s clear this up for future reference, then.

        The word under discussion casts aspersions against people based on the immutable and non-self-selected characteristic of developmental challenges. It is not merely suggestive of low intelligence or the exercise of sloppy thinking. Consequently, it is an insult “aimed towards denigrating certain groups or individuals,” and moreover it isn’t particularly on topic for the subject of the OP or the comment.

        If those words look familiar to you, they should.

        Ample alternative sobriquets uncomplimentary of Mr. Yglesias were readily available. There’s no problem whatsoever with criticizing a particular writer or better yet, with criticizing a particular contention. But there is a problem using this particular epithet.

        We will presume from this point forward that the use of this particular epithet and variants thereof will be equivalent to racial or religious epithets, so please be careful about how you deploy that word in the future.

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      • Since my good friend has already addressed the issue with more equanimity and authority than I have at my disposal, I will refrain from responding at length. Suffice it to say that, on those fleetingly rare occasions I have call to think of you at all, “ahead of the progressive curve” is not the term that springs to mind.

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      • You know Russell, Burt had an excellent post, and I mean that honestly. I’m still re-reading it! He also did a great job of keeping in non personal, but then you just went ahead and cratered it with that zinger. Pity. I’m confident, though, that while there are many things we may disagree on, we can agree on one thing. I can say the same for you as you did for me.

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  5. There was at least one other essay in the Democracy is Doomed category so maybe Vox is doing a series.

    I think like most Matt Y pieces, he has some generally good points and then goes off into wild directions.

    I am pre-empting any joke any one makes about my essays.

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  6. “In his essay, Yglesias leans heavily on the Senate filibuster. He points out — rightly — that it’s largely broken. But that doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. A dysfunctional filibuster isn’t a sign of the American armageddon. It’s just this thing that used to work okay that now doesn’t work so well. ”

    Unless I am misunderstanding you (entirely possible) I am going to disagree with this. I don’t think it is broken, and I would say that the way the R’s used it over the last 6 years is the proper way. Now, skipping all the hyperbole that someone should stand talking in order to do this, it forces the majority party to actually make arguments to the people for what they would like to do. At that point the people either agree (elect reps that will vote the manner the majority wants) or not (vote for same people.) What I am seeing as broken is the ability of politicians to actually make arguments, debate an issue. If you feel that your legislation really needs to move faster, then you really, really need to make your case.

    While America may be mostly in agreement on many issues, if one drills down a bit one sees that there are often large differences on the margins. Yes, we all want a land were we feel safe, prosperous and that we are helping those less fortunate. But how we get there, the roads, detours and resting areas, are often just as important. And that is where I feel that our differences are manifest.

    So, broken? No. Just someone will need to step up and make compelling arguments as to why their way is better.

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    • Constitutional hardball is not the proper use of the filibuster. A norm of American democracy has always been that the opposition party to the President would not use every legislative trick in the book against the President simply because it can. Most Presidential nominees would get an up or down vote and generally approved unless really disagreeable to the majority of Senators. What the Republicans decided to do was unprecedented except maybe in the attempt to continue slavery before the Civil War broke out.

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      • “Constitutional hardball is not the proper use of the filibuster. A norm of American democracy has always been that the opposition party to the President would not use every legislative trick in the book against the President simply because it can. Most Presidential nominees would get an up or down vote and generally approved unless really disagreeable to the majority of Senators. What the Republicans decided to do was unprecedented except maybe in the attempt to continue slavery before the Civil War broke out.”

        Bork

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      • And Teddy Kennedy lied in his speech, per your Wiki article:
        “Bork responded, “There was not a line in that speech that was accurate.”[25] In an obituary of Kennedy, The Economist remarked that Bork may well have been correct, “but it worked.””

        My point is not who did what, but that they are representing the people who elected them to office. The R’s have been very open about what they want, first taking the House, 4 years later the Senate. Sometimes those people want a hard line, and make very sure they are heard. Much like the Democrats during Bork. It meant a lot to them.

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  7. I’ve been watching a couple X-Files eps lately, and it… didn’t age as well as I thought it might.

    I guess the rise of a Golden Age of TV just after the show ended was likely to do that.

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  8. So what you’re saying, , is that we live in “Ordinary Times?”

    Jokes aside, I agree with the sentiment: of course the problems that we face today are serious. But the problems that we faced yesterday were serious too. The problems that our parents faced a generation ago were also serious. And the problems that our grandparents faced a generation before that were serious too. We ought not to confuse “life” with “crisis.”

    Not all of the solutions to these problems, whether yesterday’s problems, today’s problems, last generation’s problems, or any other problems at all, were necessarily solved optimally. Even if you think they were, an optimal solution a generation ago might not be an optimal solution today.

    Is the problem that our parties are so polarized they cannot talk to each other and segregate away from one another and evidently wish to form separate societies? Well, those damn goldbugs wanted that a hundred years ago. They should’ve listened to us when we said silver was the way to go. Or was it the other way around?

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  9. Yeah Matt seems overwrought to say the least. If nothing else the changing demography of the electorate may break the logjam.

    Also, Dish references just rub salt in the wound. I still haven’t been able to find a Dish replacement and it’s quite galling.

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  10. I’d also bet him a good chunk of change that our children’s children’s children will be be celebrating it during America’s quadcentenial.

    Hmmm, any way I can get in on that action? Well, we’d have to define terms first. Come 2176 there may still be a United States, practicing some form of representative democracy, under a (probably) amended version of the current Constitution, with the same or larger territorial claims, but I’d bet against that. I win if there’s a successful partition; I win if there’s a convention that replaces the Constitution; Yglesias would claim a win, I think, if the Constitution were amended to have a parliamentary system, but I’ll give that to you; I win if the US has surrendered its sovereignty to some sort of NWO. Have I missed any of the usual speculative-fiction failure modes? Who wins if there’s a representative democracy form but the real decisions are made by multinational corporations?

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  11. You call this PRETTY?
    How far do we stand from the vile wretches that will sign off on genocide in order to live a more comfortable life? (A thousand leagues and more, or a few hours in an airplane… everything’s relative)

    Perhaps, indeed, American Democracy will go on, as the poor get poorer and the rich richer.
    May you rue the day.

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  12. I have been torn on the whole democracy thing for a good long while now because of the tension between the whole “consent of the governed” thing and the whole “two wolves and a lamb voting on dinner” thing.

    Then I start thinking about “well, what should we do instead?” and I love the whole “7 Billion Kingdoms, 7 Billion Kings” idea but that is probably pretty fanciful.

    I get all nihilist when I think thoughts like @Clarkhat’s: The Big Lie of our era is that the system is under human control. Its not.

    So I really have no idea what to do. But learned helplessness is also a pretty shitty option.

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    • I’m sure he’d dislike the comparison, but Clark is pretty much Karl Marx. He has some great insights into the dark underside of how the system actually works, but God forbid anyone try to apply his remedies,.

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