Democracy in America?

Stephen Eric Bronner / Reader Supported News
Democracy in America? A man walks through the empty Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 2020. (photo: Chip Somodevilla)

The United States is in the midst of a political and existential crisis. Understanding it calls for investigating anti-democratic choices made when the nation was in its infancy. America never had a great political thinker on the level of Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, or Hegel. In fact, its theory of governance can probably be boiled down to about 30 pages worth of newspaper articles compiled in The Federalist Papers (1788). Written in support of the Constitution, as part of a raging debate over its ratification, the target of these essays was the Articles of Confederation (1777), which advocated a decentralized structure of 13 virtually autonomous states united in a loose confederation; it is still much admired by anarchists and libertarians. The Federalist Papers, instead, articulated the need for a more centralized governmental structure in accordance with the needs of a modern state. Everyday people were able to read and discuss them—and they did. Back then, indeed, political theory was political. The most famous of these “papers” -- #10, #51, and #78—still reverberate with all students of American politics. They speak to what is happening now.

Clear, brief, and to the point, this collection of short essays was authored by three of America’s “founding fathers:” James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, they were quite a trio. Madison helped organize the Constitutional Convention, served as the 5th Secretary of State (1801-9), and played a crucial role in the “Louisiana Purchase” of territories from France that added 23 million acres to the nation, and doubled its original size, before becoming the 4th President of the United States, serving from 1808-1816. As for Alexander Hamilton, who wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers, he envisioned the United States as an industrial power, and proved instrumental in creating the nation’s first two central banks. A general in the military, who Secretary of the Treasury in the cabinet of President George Washington, he was famously killed in 1804 in a dual with the notorious former Vice President, Aaron Burr. Unlike Madison and Washington, who owned slaves, Hamilton was a proponent of ending the legality of the international slave trade, and like John Jay, an abolitionist. The least known of the Federalist Papers’ three authors was John Jay, who served as Ambassador to Spain and Secretary of Foreign Affairs, before becoming America’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1789-1795).

Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were authentic intellectual and political revolutionaries who turned the logic of governance upside down. No less than Machiavelli or Hobbes, admittedly, they believed that men were self-interested and egoistic. Madison was clear: if men were angels there would be no need for government. But what kind of government? Europeans thought that hierarchical and centralized states were necessary to keep the masses in line. America’s founding fathers, however, viewed the matter differently. They envisioned a decentralized government with checks and balances. Combining this with explicitly anti-democratic institutions, they believed, it would produce the same result while protecting individual liberty.

Madison, Jay, and Hamilton were propertied bourgeois and landowners, children of the Enlightenment, and nobody’s fools. Their views on personal liberty, representative democracy, and an independent judiciary set the stage for genuine advances in democratic governance. But their goals were all pursued with an eye for their interests, and within “prudent” limits. As portrayed in the magisterial cycle of American historical novels by Gore Vidal, which begins with Burr (1973), these federalists, above all, feared the “great beast,” the poor and the property-less, as much as any European aristocrat. They allowed for slavery in order to gain support for the Constitution from Southern states. African and Native Americans could not vote; women could not vote; those without property could not vote; and everyone had to be 21. Individual states were left to decide the details. This later led to poll taxes, literacy tests, and flat-out coercion, especially against Blacks in the South following the Civil War and Reconstruction, and well into the 1960s. Today, indeed, eighteen states have already passed legislation with the same intent, under pressure from a resurgent white supremacist constituency, and with solid support from the Republican Party.

Even severe voting restrictions, however, did not make elites feel secure. They wanted more protection, and they got it: governors and senators were initially elected indirectly by state assemblies; an electoral college would indirectly determine the president; and Supreme Court justices, nominated by the president and ratified by the Senate, would sit on the bench for life. Some changes were made: governors and senators are now elected directly by popular vote, and members of the electoral college generally vote in accordance with their state’s popular vote. In spite of these changes, however, the original institutional hindrances to democracy remain a serious matter. Senators are still granted enormous latitude, the electoral college still serves reactionary interests, and due to unforeseen circumstances, supported by a unified Republican majority in the Senate, three highly conservative justices were confirmed for the Supreme Court.

The Federalist Papers split the exercise of national sovereignty between the Congress, the judiciary, and the presidency (as well as the federal government and the states). With each institution seeking to expand its turf at the expense of the others, coupled with complex and confusing laws, their domains of control became increasingly fluid. Congress is supposedly in control of the budget, for example, yet the president and the senate can both intercede. Institutional accountability also suffers. Thus, the embarrassing presentation of the Mueller Report, which dealt with Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Trump’s two impeachment hearings, and the seemingly endless inquiry into the January 6th insurrection.

But the most important problem involves elections. Their framework was provided by The Federalist Papers. Organized through single member districts, where the “winner takes all,” the electoral process is the real source of “American exceptionalism.” Should a candidate garner 51% of the popular vote, for example, 49% of the district’s citizens might find themselves completely disempowered. Unlike European forms of proportional representation, where 49% of the vote won by a national party will probably result in 49% of the seats in parliament, the American system is black and white. The power of political parties is reducible to the number of individual candidates who emerge triumphant in each district or state. It is a matter of win or lose—everything. This electoral structure harbors disincentives for the birth of third parties if only because they cannot grow over time, say, from 5% to 10% to 20% etc. It’s always now or never – all or nothing.

The only way for citizens not to “waste” their votes is to choose between the “lesser of the two evils,” namely, Democrats and Republicans. In spite of the current polarized political atmosphere, the founding fathers surely intuited that single-member winner-take-all districts would also produce disincentives for ideological parties (i.e. communist, socialist, fascist). That is because candidates will need support from different and often mutually exclusive interests, or “factions.” Politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties are thus pressured by the system to “balance” the concerns of, say, unions, capital, environmentalists, and other factions, in a “pragmatic” agenda that usually lacks any ideological consistency whatsoever.

These factions have different degrees of power, and elites can organize a faction more easily than others, such as immigrants, whose interests remain under-represented or ignored entirely. That this impacts the character of a given coalition of factions, however, was never relevant for the founding fathers. Compromise of principle and interest was the aim of their electoral framework, which extended from the local to the highest (presidential) level. A particularly grotesque attempt to grapple with the structure of American elections was the unprincipled “triangulation” strategy of President Bill Clinton, which sought to place the Democratic Party ever so slightly to the left of Republicans on any given issue; it sounds good, but the ultimate result was a supposedly progressive president’s promising “to end welfare as we know it.” Triangulation was also undertaken by Senator Al Gore (D-Tennessee) in his unsuccessful presidential contest with Governor George W. Bush in 2000, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s run against Donald Trump in 2016. Both won the popular vote, Hillary Clinton by more than 3 million ballots, but miscalculated with regard to the impact of the electoral college. Both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were defeated.

Genuinely progressive reformers have always had a hard time dealing with these various electoral constraints on democracy. Aware of events in Ancient Greece, and the Roman Republic, the federalists worried about the property-less majority electing a people’s tribune and the prospect of this majority forcing taxes on the rich. They purposely made it difficult to implement national policies. There is hardly a single major piece of welfare legislation from social security to healthcare in which the United States has historically taken the lead. The introduction of such legislation usually lags 50 years behind countries with socialist parties, parliamentary regimes, and national unions. Different candidates in the United States swing a bit to the left or to the right depending upon the coalitions that they form. Even though the last 50 years has seen the ideological mainstream shifting to the right, which is barely recognized by the average voter, the standard claim is that power in America rests on what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the vital center.”

Privileging the power of local factions as against national political parties further complicates the labyrinthine structure of American institutions. Professional politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties seek to keep these factional interests in the non-governmental realm of civil society where much of the pre-electoral bargaining takes place. But that doesn’t always work. When an ideological vacuum sucks the life out of a political party and its identifiable policies have palpably failed, it is the more extreme factions that can become dominant. Such was the case with the racist “Dixiecrats” and white councils” in the South that had a huge impact on national parties, and their policies, during the decades after World War II. It was the same with the Tea Party, which began its assault on the vapid “center” occupied by supporters of President George W. Bush. Currently, it is the same with the neo-fascist Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the conspiracy fetishists of Q-Anon, whose local activities have been inspired and supported by President Trump.

Factional minorities can rule America. That possibility favors elites, and it is strengthened by an anachronistic Electoral College that essentially rejects the idea of “one person, one vote.” Other marginalized constituencies bear the costs. Expelling their egalitarian demands from the political discourse is among the most obvious ways in which inequality has been maintained. The United States still lacks an equal rights amendment for women. Institutional racism became a subject of crucial concern only in the aftermath of the protests associated with Black Lives Matter! – and it has produced a powerful backlash. Intolerance toward the LGBTQ community remains, and the plight of Native Americans is barely recognized. The source of these problems, it is worth noting, is not primarily the federal government but the states –and particularly those with non-urban, agricultural, and provincial small-town constituencies. That remains the case today.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835) idealized the national culture of individualism and the town meeting. His canonical work was wrong on both counts. American individualism has always been conformist, provincial, and intertwined with laissez-faire capitalist ideology, “getting the government off our backs” and fear of those who would “take away our guns.” Contemptuous of big business, and always suspicious of “socialist” and “communist” reforms, American individualism is petty bourgeois to the core. There is the insistence that one opinion is as good as another, which Herbert Marcuse correctly labeled “repressive tolerance,” and there is only contempt for any scientific “expert” or intellectual who denies that. Indeed, the American obsession with personal liberty has never been reciprocal. It has rarely extended to the genuine non-conformist. Personal liberty has always been there for me, but not for you, and its pursuit has come at the expense of social responsibility.

Regarding the “town meeting,” meanwhile, local cliques are usually in control, and turnout in local elections is sometimes as low as 10% of the voting public. Because the issues discussed are usually minor, such as putting up a traffic light, little publicity is generated and less oversight, which best serves the interests of highly organized and coordinated elites. Local politics thus becomes the arena in which corruption and organized extremism thrive. Populism veils reaction. Electing the president through rewarding less populated conservative rural states and disempowering urban constituencies that usually vote Democratic, such as people of color, skews the political arrangement.

No wonder that Republicans seek to keep the vote low, and that they have been the primary beneficiaries of this situation. Leaving the determination of most electoral rules in the hands of individual states, furthermore, has made possible new forms of suppressing the popular vote by placing obstacles on absentee voting, hard to reach voting places, purposefully creating long lines, lack of accountability in counting ballots, and seemingly insignificant yet effective strategies. Voting rights along with domestic spending bills are stalled in the Senate due to the obstinance of conservative, or what are known as “blue dog” Democrats. As usual, they are from reactionary states with large right-wing constituencies that are suspicious of the federal government and contemptuous of non-white citizens who would benefit from such legislation.

Is there democracy in America? The appropriate response is: compared to what? When juxtaposed against the utterly impractical vision of participatory democracy, certainly not. When measured against parliamentary regimes with proportional representation, which privilege party over faction, questionably. When compared to existing dictatorships and “illiberal” democracies now existing in Poland or Hungary, however, there is no doubt about it.

Today, this electoral framework is being manipulated in ways that endanger democratic governance. Between the veiled “gerrymandering,” or reorganizing of districts and authoritarian attempts to suppress the vote, a Republican attempt to “stop the steal” of another presidential election is underway. It is possible for Democrats to overcome such obstacles, but it will take resources and determination. They will need to prioritize democratic empowerment even at the short-term expense of economic equality and, in the long run, they must work to abolish the

Electoral College, demand term limits for Supreme Court justices, eradicate anti-democratic bureaucratic procedures, participate at the state and local levels, reject sectarianism, and get out the vote! This will all demand the careful targeting of resources. Unless that is done, the prospects for democratic governance will grow weaker, and we may even experience yet another authoritarian minority winner in the presidential race of 2024.

Stephen Eric Bronner is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue. His most recent work is The Sovereign (Routledge).

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

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