Today’s TLR is about democracy. It’s not about politics. It’s also not about the upcoming impeachment trial of former President Trump. Although both politics and impeachment are a part of America’s democratic machinery – the latter falling within the domain of Congress and the Supreme Court –, they are only slices of America’s democratic system. That hasn’t stopped the media from turning political dialogue and the impeachment process into spectacles. Their goal (as well as that of a number of elected officials) is to attract attention, foment controversy and intensify partisan divisions by engaging in self-serving “fact finding” to reach an premature extra-Constitutional public verdict, precisely the sort of process that should never be relegated to talking heads and yellow journalists (see “Constitutional Free Speech“) … or to Senators vying for higher office before they hear the facts. The media’s, and self-serving individuals’, projections of right or wrong, winners and losers, and guilt or innocence throws sand into democracy’s gearbox (a subject TLR previously discussed here and here).
What is needed instead is a soul-searching examination of the meaning and functionality of American democracy. Few question that American democracy recently has been … challenged …, or that it’s damaged. The fact is that it has degenerated into something the Founders didn’t contemplate. American democracy and the American democratic process have been deformed into a beast form Alexander Hamilton and James Madison no longer would recognize.
In large part, that’s because of the passage of time. America’s Constitutional democracy is 230 years old. The world has changed radically during that period …, and so has the American democratic process. The impact of massive agricultural, industrial, technological and biotechnological revolutions have had, and continue to have, a multiplier effect, one that is accelerating. Longer lifespans and a rising standard of living have transformed the process – and the economics – of governing and the structure of government … as well as the profiles of those who govern. Recent environmental, healthcare and social disruptions have added complications …, and the past 2+ decades in America have witnessed the increasing influence of social media, the rise of cultism, a decrease in social mobility, increased income inequality, political polarization, a sundering of America’s global ties and the rise of a global hegemonic competitor, a most formidable challenger to America’s economic, military, geopolitical and social leadership (discussed in “Red Storm Rising“). As prophesized by Samuel Huntington in his 1981 book, American Politics: Promise of Disharmony, the definition of democracy and the application of democratic principles become muddied “during [such] periods of rapid social and economic change, when established relationships among groups are disrupted…. In the history of most societies, rapid economic and social change enhances the role of ideology in politics.” Huntington focused on what he referred to as the IvI gap, the tension between American ideals (the first “I”) and America’s institutions (the second “I”). The IvI gap means that America experiences periodic conflicts between those who rely on government and its concomitant bureaucratic institutions – a norm in a complex society –, and those who crave a simpler world where there is limited government and the ideals of individual liberty, equality, individualism, and democracy are practiced in day-to-day life. “Changes in the relative social and economic status of particular groups may motivate those groups to focus on the IvI gap and to attempt to bring about reforms in political institutions and practices.” The result in 2021 is not simply efforts at reform, but actual armed conflict that could lead to “mobocracy” if carried to its French Revolution extreme. There is a long history in undemocratic societies of dissatisfaction leading to protests followed by violence and anarchic conditions that provide fertile ground for revolution and dictatorship. Fortunately, that has not been the trajectory of democratic governments.
That being said, human nature has not changed. Although our era differs in many ways from prior ones, and although America’s democracy differs in material ways from autocratic and monarchial ones, and although the world is experiencing a terrifying unique fusion of cyclical revolutions at a time of accelerating human evolutionary development, and although the seeds of this political cycle are growing in a different economic, social and geopolitical soil, the outcome for American democracy remains within Americans’ control. In order to reach a benign, and optimally auspicious, outcome, American democracy must adapt to 21st Century realities. It hopefully is in the process of doing precisely that …, though it is struggling to agree on a vision of exactly what needs to change for that to happen. What is clear is that there will be either democratic progress … or a deterioration of American democracy. Unfortunately, what has occurred thus far in the 21st Century is democratic decay.
Democracy in America means that citizens choose their leaders by majority vote through a two-political party series of elections. America’s Constitution provides that choices are made through secret ballot by citizens who elect representatives to serve as their leaders. Although that process hasn’t changed over the past 230 years, the mechanics for doing so have been adjusted in material ways.
Democracy in America supposedly preferably idealistically is government “by the will of the people.” That indeed was the original intent. Although it may have been a valid aspiration when the Constitution was adopted in 1788, it’s not the reality today. Changes have been made to the electoral process, including that universal suffrage has been added … and has been weakened by mechanisms intended to narrow voter participation (that is, voter suppression), making suffrage less a right than a partisan struggle. More recently, gerrymandering and campaign finance expansion have significantly altered the way in which America’s electoral and legislative processes proceed: The 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United allows businesses and special interest groups to spend unlimited sums to influence voters – as well as to finance candidates – and, in doing so, to purchase lobby for the spoils of government munificence; Gill v. Whitford, a 2018 Supreme Court decision, upheld the Constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering, an outcome that has led to the most politically-driven creative redistricting in two centuries … and, as a bonus, fostered a combination of virulent partisanship and a repugnance to compromise …, which, in turn, has nurtured extremism in the selection of candidates, in legislative agendas, and in the composition of Federal and State legislatures. With America’s politicians and their legislative agendas for sale, it’s no wonder that democracy in America is
being ridiculed by America’s authoritarian adversaries in trouble.
The brand of American democracy in practice today is not government “by the will of the people.” It is instead a form of special interest political-party oligopoly democracy that is being challenged by segments of American society opposed to other Americans’ special interest agendas … as well as by segments opposed to special interest political-party oligopoly democracy itself …, precisely the type of internal conflict predicted by Huntington. Huntington warned that this “democratic disharmony” would create diverse and competitive special interest cadres that would demand too much from elected officials, leading to widespread disillusionment with government and with the ability of government to successfully address society’s needs. The consequence, however, has been more than mere disharmony. The monster that 21st Century special interest democracy has birthed is a unique, many-headed one – a schizoid mobocracy that is leading the nation towards anarchy.
American democracy has been the most successful experiment in government in human history, but like all experiments, its underpinnings are fragile. American democracy depends on application of the Rule of Law to protect society from descending into civil strife, mobocracy … and anarchy. Mobs have no limits. They run out of control unless tethered to consistent, historically-proven rules. America is a diverse, racially-fractured, geographically-scattered, class-antagonistic, socially-conflicted society founded on a delicate balance between Federalism and States’ Rights. These all are natural incompatibilities that require a unifying set of agreed-upon principles. In America, those principles are set out in the Constitution and have been embodied in the legislation and consequent litigation of the past two centuries. The requirements placed on the American government to enforce those laws naturally clash with the anti-Statist values of individualism. Huntington predicted that America therefore would experience periods when special interests, and the mobs that deplore them, would decide that America had lost its way and that they, and only they, could return it to its foundational roots. He was optimistic, however, that America indeed would succeed in restoring a balance.
As long as 21st Century America continues to aspire to what the Framers of American democracy intended – government of the people, by the people and for the people … and one that accurately responds to “the will of the people” –, change is necessary. Constitutional change. Imagine an America where voting districts were determined impartially (and not by politicians), with the result being a balance of disparate voters and viewpoints that necessarily would lead to the airing of positions, dialogue, debate and compromise … all for an agenda that benefits the greatest number of Americans. Imagine a nation where money would cease to buy legislators legislation, dictate votes, amend rules, and award regulatory preferences. Imagine an electoral system where citizenship confers suffrage and where every citizen has easy access to a ballot. Each of these is attainable using 21st Century American technologies. All that is required is the will to make it so. That will can only be realized through Constitutional reform (which, because of “The Federalism Wars,” both Republicans and Democrats today should have an interest in pursuing). Politicians in both Political Parties have reason to retain the status quo. After all, their political careers depend on partisanship and division. But that’s not the way to make America greater. That not the way to deter mobocracy … or the way to restore “the will of the people.” To the contrary. Avoiding the mechanisms that would restore America to its foundational principles is the way for American decline.
Finally (in celebration of Groundhog Day)