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Friday, June 10, 2005

The Republican Assault on Democracy, Third (and Last) Part

I will keep it shorter today.  What follows is inspired by Ian Shapiro’s wonderful book, The State of Democratic Theory (Princeton UP, 2003).  He, in turn, derives his idea of “competitive democracy” from Joseph Schumpeter’s 1942 classic Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, a book that was still standard fare for undergrads when I was in college in the early 70s, but which seems to have dropped out of sight in the last fifteen years.

The basic idea is simple: it’s not a democracy unless the “outs” have a reasonable hope of someday becoming the “ins.” Another way to put the same idea: it’s not a democracy (in Iraq or anyplace else) unless you have had at least two peaceful transitions in which an incumbent party loses an election and hands over power to a rival party. 

The most obvious benefit of democracy, viewed this way, is peace.  The most important corollary benefit is that the opposition party plays a key role in keeping the party in power honest.  It is obviously in the opposition party’s interest to keep the public informed about the missteps and misdeeds of the administration party.  In other words, the opposition party is as crucial to ongoing publicity as a free press.  And publicity is a crucial safeguard (not the only one, but a crucial one) against governmental abuse of power. 

Democracy, in short, prevents one party rule.  Now, there’s a paradox here, since each of the rival parties can be expected to do everything it can to become the dominant party and to stay that way.  But, in fact, disaster will follow if any of the parties ever succeeds in getting what it wishes.  Because once you create a minority that is permanently on the outside, that loses the elections every single time, that minority has no incentive to stay inside the system.  They will be tempted to—and then will attempt—to secede.  Civil peace will yield to civil war.

Every democracy needs, in order to stay afloat, swing voters.  In fact, the more swing voters the better.  And, crucially, every democracy will be better off if the voting behavior of individual voters does not map predictably to ethnic, regional, sectarian, or class affiliations.  Take ethnicity, for example.  If 90% of the voters vote along ethnic lines, then there will not be much “give” in the electorate, and a winning ethnic configuration (be it a coalition of several ethnic groups or just one large ethnic group) can expect to repeat its success at the polls again and again.  Ethnic voters on the losing side will begin to feel permanently excluded. (That’s why democracy in Iraq is so iffy--as it is in any country where you can expect ethnically or religiously identified parties.  Unless there is some movement of voters from one party to the other, the lines of opposition will become firmly entrenched, thus lessening the chances of electoral swings and of peaceful hand-overs of power.)

So what’s the problem in 2005?  Basically, American democracy has been so remarkably stable (with the notable exceptions, to be discussed in a moment, of the Civil War and the Civil Rights conflicts) because our political parties have always run toward the center, have always aimed for inclusiveness.  They have—with the large and notable exception of racism—not advanced exclusionary platforms. (Exceptions like the Know-Nothings only suggest how little traction anti-immigrant and/or sectarian parties ever got in national politics.  Even Philip Roth’s counter-factual fantasy in The Plot Against America doesn’t imagine anti-Semitism prevailing very long in the United States. )

But today’s Republican Party is pursuing a policy of playing to its base and of demonizing its opponents as unfit to rule, as dangerous to America.  Yes, I see the irony; I’m doing the same thing apparently.  My only excuse is that I am fulminating not against what the Republics are using power—while they have it—to do, but against how the ways they are striving to get and maintain power endanger our democratic traditions and institutions.  I am running a form/content distinction if you will.  The content of what the Republicans do with power is legitimate so long as they work through the established democratic forms.  My argument is that Republicans tried to de-legitimize the Clinton presidency and keep it from accomplishing anything substantive by working outside the established forms.  They were so sure Clinton was a demon that they were willing to trash democracy in order to render him ineffective. And since gaining office, they have shown an equal willingness to trash democracy in order to make their own power more effective. They are utterly driven by content—and either have no understanding of or utter contempt for form.  Legal and procedural niceties are for sissies seems to sum up their basic, thuggish, approach to governing.

The more important point, however, is that they are hell bent on creating a majority that does not need to and has no desire to reach out to the opposition—either the opposition party or its opponents in the electorate.  And that’s the formula for civil strife.  There are few things worse in this world than sectarian violence.  Do the Republicans really know what fire they are playing with when they encourage sectarian divisiveness? 

And just look at the electoral map of the past two presidential elections.  The South and the West are lined up against the Pacific Coast States and the North.  We haven’t had such a regional divide since 1860.  How long can California and the Northeast be shut out from national power?  A population hardened into set divisions—i.e. a population without a big percentage of swing voters—is in bad shape; a population where those divisions correspond to geographic boundaries is really courting disaster.  The great Achilles heel of American history has been the relation to non-whites—and it has proved so threatening to the nation as a whole because it has made the South electorally monolithic.  If the South and West maintain their current coalition, we have a reversion to the regionalism that culminated in the Civil War.  Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the South continues to be the fly in the ointment of American democracy.  It has never been as fluid in its awarding of votes in national elections as the other regions and that has been a constant problem.

Am I saying civil war is around the corner in America?  No. Certainly the past six years have shown that no one ever lost a bet overestimating the torpor of the general public.  As the bumper sticker has it, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” Seems like a lot of people aren’t paying attention. Less cynically, we can say that American life is good enough on a day to day basis that tons of people have a stake in ongoing civil peace. 

What I am saying is that I think we have lost any sense of how our democracy functions—or that it may be much more fragile than we assume.  We are in a period of tremendous consolidation of power into the hands of the few, not only of the very wealthy but also of an almost permanently installed political class.  (The Democrats are as much to blame here as the Republicans; they have been full co-conspirators in establishing uncompetitive legislative districts and in the spiraling campaign costs that so favor incumbents.) We are taking our democracy for granted while engaging in political practices that undermine it.  We are assuming an immunity from civil strife that is hardly guaranteed. 

So where is the hope that I began this set of guest blogs espousing?  The first glimmer is that the people seem both more weary and more wary of the current partisanship than hard-core political types (of which I am obviously one.  I cannot imagine what could ever bring me to vote Republican, which means, as a decidedly non-swing voter, I’m part of the problem, not part of the solution.) Just like the people wouldn’t let the Republicans drive Clinton out of office, so I hope that we can count on them to rein in Republican and sectarian excess.  All of which means that I still rest my faith on a Democratic Party that goes to the country with a unifying message about fostering a prosperity and a freedom in which all can share.  Because, as I also said in that first post, if the people don’t choose to sustain democracy against all that threatens it, democracy will not be sustained. 

Posted by John McGowan on 06/10 at 12:59 PM
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