Democracy in Crisis
Thursday, March 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM
John Perry

This week we're thinking about Democracy in Crisis. Now if we're talking about American Democracy, then our title is pretty optimistic, since it presupposes there is an American democracy to be in crisis. If you told me the passenger pigeon was in crisis, that would also be optimistic, since the passenger pigeon went extinct a century or so ago.  

Why isn't it crazy to think that American democracy has gone extinct? Consider the 2014 election, where the Democrats won a considerable majority of the votes for the House of Representatives, but the Republicans took over the House. The issue there is gerrymandering -- electoral districts whose borders have been manipulated to favor one patty. That's a problem -- but does it mean we don't have a democracy? 

Well think a little further back to the election of 2000, when Al Gore got more votes but George Bush became President. You may think that's just the whining of a dyspeptic depressed and desperate democrat with a small "d", rather than a philosopher worried about democracy with a capital "D". But the problem is larger than the impotence and incompetence of the Democrats, or the ignorance and venality of the Republicans (not to betray any bias here). The problem is the very structure of our supposedly democratic institutions.

Democracy is supposed to mean majority rule. But even in the House and Senate, the majority doesn't rule. In the last term, when the democrats were the Senate majority, they couldn't get approval for the President's appointments, because of the filibuster. Even in the House, bills that would have easily passed weren't allowed to come to a vote, unless a majority of the Republican caucus favored them.  

According to the Constitution, the President is supposed to have a veto, which can only be overridden by a supermajority. But in reality, every Senator has a veto that can only be overridden by a supermajority voting for cloture. And the majority leader in the House has a veto that no one can override. We have don't have a demo-cracy -- we have a veto-cracy.

But does all that mean American democracy has gone the way of the dodo or the passenger pigeon? Even that may be an optimistic question -- at least the passenger pigeon and the dodo existed for a while. Did we ever have a Democracy in America? Not in the beginning, when the majority -- women plus African-Americans -- didn't have the vote. The Senate was intentionally un-democratic, and it's gotten worse. As Californians, our influence on the Senate is statistically insignificant compared to someone from Delaware or Alaska.

The Founding Fathers did build in a feature that allowed for change: constitutional amendment. Amendments enfranchised African-Americans -- in theory, at least -- and eventually women, too. There probably won't be an amendment to abolish the Senate any time soon, but it certainly doesn't seem hopeless to think of getting rid of gerrymandering with an amendment. Or even limiting the filibuster. Or having direct elections for the presidency. Or overturning Citizens United. Of course you'd have to convince me that the Koch brothers and the other rich people who buy our elections are in favor of those amendments. The Supreme Court's Ruling in the Citizens United effectively disenfranchised the non-rich. 

The system more or less sucks from top to bottom. Even if an intelligent honest politician sneaks into office, he or she has to spend all of their time raising money for the next election. We've set things up to discourage competent people from seeking office, and then handed out vetoes to the charlatans who sell their souls and get elected.

So are there any grounds for optimism in this crisis? Our guest, Francis Fukuyama, was famously optimistic about democracy at the end of the 20th century. Tune in to hear what has to say about the danger of decay in democratic political systems.

Comments (16)


Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, March 20, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thomas Jefferson became the

Thomas Jefferson became the third president because of the Electoral College effect of counting slaves. The media was brutal, and had no compunctions about spreading lies. A good read about that era is Burr, by Gore Vidal. But I do wish people would stop using the phrase "Founding Fathers". It was the people, not their leaders, who founded America. The Constitution was not initially ratified, but only acquiesced to under the promise of a Bill of Rights, not the one that we got, either. The Second Amendment, for instance, was sop to the conceit, derived from the French and Indian War, that American militias were a match for an organized army. We almost lost the War of 1812 as a result.
The current state of politics eerily resembles the Rump Parliament during the reign of Charles II. What may have been a desperate gambit for democracy in England was a disaster for the early American colonies, because Charles, denied support from parliament, turned to America to reassert his authority and to find some way of raising revenue. The wars of 1675-6 were more formative of America than was the Revolution.
What we have is a white minority that will do anything to prevent a 'majority minority', including selling America down the river. It's 'Bleeding Kansas' all over again.

Jim Lyttle's picture

Jim Lyttle

Friday, March 20, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Even with a constitution to

Even with a constitution to force some deontology into the mix, I am not sure why democracy would be desirable.  Perhaps the Greeks had some success making decisions by majority vote of a tiny elite called citizens but, if "the market" is any indication of democracy in action, it does not seem like a system that can make wise decisions or resist manipulation.  Even with more college graduates than ever, the population seems eager to seek and obey clear expectations, published rubrics, and so forth.  Dr. Fukuyama seems to see the role of the electorate as one of judging the performance of previous administrations and, if the performance is not deemed favorable, "voting them off the island."  This makes governments accountable to the people and probably discourages totalitarianism.  But doesn't it result in a simple utilitarianism in which governments aim to please 55% of the voters and leave it at that?  What about externalities, principles, wisdom?
By the way, I applaud Dr. Fukuyama for abandoning postmodernism and, later, militant neoconservatism.  In politics, that may be called flip-flopping but I consider it evidence of wisdom.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, March 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

None too Sanguine about that

None too Sanguine about that supposed change of heart on the part of Fukuyama. His is still a top-down perspective. A little history would dispel the myth that market forces lead to democratic outcomes, as well as the myth that small government and low taxes maximizes wealth. Markets only offer what producers want to sell. They do not respond to the micro-economics of ordinary life. It is very much a top-down process. The inability to envision a bottom up alternative shows a lack of insight. The trick is simple, empower the people. Mitigate the effect of wealth in isolating wage earners and the poor. Wherever this is done prosperity increases. That this is hard to argue in America today shows the propaganda power of money. Money is toxic. What caused the great recession was an abandonment of fiduciary responsibility. That is, bankers deliberately ripped off their depositors and lied to borrowers. One of the dirty secrets about money is that it clusters, after bouncing around in the economy, in large toxic pools, where its managers think of it as their own unless otherwise disabused.
But as for politics, what we have here is a Zombie Confederacy. Hell has no fury like a privilege scorned. The hysteria that results from a social system requiring the subordination of whole sectors of society to the pretenses of a smaller group to a purer or worthier right to decide who should do well in life. The aspect often missed in this culture of intimidation is that the hysterical promotion of the doctrine of superior right is not limited its attacks upon the subordinated classes, but goes after any hint of variance to solidarity amongst its own ranks as well. The irrationality of the right is just a symptom of this. As bad as racism is in America, it is really just a way of obscuring the fact that we have become a class system, no more democratic in most practical spheres of life than its feudal predecessors.
 

MJA's picture

MJA

Saturday, March 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

From the bottom up: when we

From the bottom up: when we give others the power to rule over us, that power comes at a terrible cost, it comes from the lose of our own power, the power of self-control. Democracy is no different than any other form of government, when we lose our own self control, be it taken away or democratically voted away, we lose our independence, we lose our freedom. And sadly while we talk about the ill effects of the power we have given to others that form this democracy, we lose sight of our own rights, we lose sight of the light, and slip further into the abyss. It is a slippery slope this democracy, you surely must agree.
America freed itself from the King only to form another government to rule over us. And although its intentions perhaps were noble, a simple government that formed a militia to help protect us, and a mail system that kept us informed, where are we today? How much self-control, liberty and freedom have we lost; have we lost all of us, have we lost our true selves?
Oh I know, without government surely chaos would ensue and, as we have been taught, all would be lost. Right? But is it not governments that wage wars, corporate fed governments that keep us nursing on oil, governments that tell us terrorism will get us if we don't give away our privacy, our freedom to speak? Is government induced fear their tools of control? Do you still watch the news?
Democracy,  I don't vote anymore, I can't participate in a system that gives away my freedom. I don't need others to make decisions for me, nor do I wish to make them for others. I would only become king to dissolve the kingdom.  But I do hope to vote again someday. You see, I too have a dream, that One day there will be a single ballot question that asks: Do you wish to be governed or do you wish to be free? And in that dream and on that day I will vote again for freedom. Free at last! = 

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

We insist we have democracy

We insist we have democracy in this country, yet we pledge our allegiance to the flag and the REPUBLIC for which it stands; at best we have a plebiscitary republic.
America is not a "Democracy", it's a plebiscitary republic; there has never been a Democracy at any time in history. The city-state of Athens, the birthplace of democracy, came the closest to implementing the practice, but women, slaves and foreigners where excluded.  
In an actual democracy all of the stake holders (citizens) gather together and proffer various positions and debated them before casting a vote.  In our plebiscitary republic we only vote on referendums, along with pre-selected candidates, who feign to represent the people, but in reality serve their own interest with impunity.
Democracy is coming into it?s own with the Internet.  Go to any websites with comment/discussion platforms and you?ll see it in action.  How to harness this raw democracy for society to benefit from the wisdom of the crowd is the next big thing.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, March 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Actually, France and England

Actually, France and England had a higher percent of voter eligibility at the time, and the "Founding Fathers" were (mostly) very explicit in their intention to keep it that way. They believed only "men of substance" showed themselves worthy of the franchise.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Michael,

Michael,
You're deluding yourself if you think that only government is a threat to your liberties. What, for instance, do you think of net-neutrality?
 
The snippet of the show I heard was about whether democracy is failing globally. It takes a pretty myopic perspective to think so. Just consider South America and even much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Democracy is on the rise, not in decline.
The first American colonies were protestant groups in the north, the Dutch in New York, and, at first, 'C of E' conservatives in the south. The north divided between larger trade and commerce colonies, and a dispersed collection of towns emulating the ancient village life of England. The southern colonies were on the plantation model, fed by conscripted labor which, early on, was white and of limited duration. As these were set free according to the term of their indenture, or escaped, they set off to settle the frontier in isolated fortress homesteads. And so we have the variety of lifestyles founded here. The entrepreneurs of New England and New York, the close communities of the New England interior, the lord-like plantation farmers of the south, and the bitterly estranged anomie of the Virginia frontier. All these, though in revised forms, shape the current ethos in politics here. For instance, the hill country then was all Baptist, in contrast to the established church in the tidewater region. It was the Baptists that demanded a separation of religion from government because they did not want to pay taxes to support a church they thought corrupt, even satanic. Today these same folks demand public support for their faith. A strange turnaround, but the same demiurge.  
Democracy requires of us that we reflect in our political discourse and in our votes what we think is best for the country, not what we want for ourselves. Even selfishness can find its place there, though, if it is no more than one voice at a time. It is where factions emerge to become a kind of law unto themselves, prejudicing what each individual can express and limiting how effectively we can critique our own motive, that poisons the discourse, and the vote. The Framers of the Constitutions were powerfully aware of this, and they thought they were taking steps to avert it. The effect was little better than to assure it, since the factions were already entrenched. Remember, Boehner could have formed a coalition of mostly the other party, or the House of Representatives could have elected a Speaker across party lines. They chose not to do so. It is the bunker mentality of a faction in deep anomie against the most likely, and effective, majority. But their days are numbered, and, however ugly it gets, democracy will have its days.   
 
 
 
 
 

MJA's picture

MJA

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Net-neutrality is equality

Net-neutrality is equality and that Gary is just me! =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, March 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Michael,

Michael,
Have you ever heard of the FCC?

Marc Bellario's picture

Marc Bellario

Saturday, March 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

engaged by this topic on

engaged by this topic on democracy - I think it is important to view democracy - as a continual process,
not static, and continually in need of improvement - of many types.  However, when there are legal
and structural changes - there can also but " un-intended consequences " ... and some of these
while intending to improve the process can have the opposite effects.   
However, I do think it's helpful to consider the difference between - political solutions and 
social service - political solution in easier to say.  Social service is hard - because it requires
time, energy, and commitment.

Marc Bellario's picture

Marc Bellario

Saturday, March 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

by social service - I mean

by social service - I mean service to society -----

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thinking about Professor

Thinking about Professor Perry's introductory words on this blog topic, I'd like to double-distill this confounding brew somewhat. If we portage past outcomes and examine causes, we see pretty quickly that the disenfranchisement of the non-rich has been happening for a very long time. Wealth in these United States has been eroding the foundations of democracy for quite awhile, seems to me. Agree with this synthesis or not, the notion that elections are bought is difficult to refute. You may have noticed that most any sort of campaign finance reforms that have been proposed are summarily dismissed when they would place restrictions on how much (and/or how often) money may be squandered on the election of yes men and women. All of this, after we have long recognized that he who spends the most, most often gets elected. There are exceptions. But they are rare. Therefore, we are compelled to conclude that the government we get is as Lou Dobbs has often intoned, the best government money can buy. It has been said that we get what we deserve. I think this is mostly true. With some rare exceptions. HGN

Truman Chen's picture

Truman Chen

Sunday, April 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

A big part of the problem is

A big part of the problem is that politics has been reduced to a mere vote, a problem that even Jefferson noted late in his life. What he effectively did was replace the town halls with voting booths, and in doing so betrayed his own kind, so to speak: the politically intelligent and rhetorically skilled. In this reduction of politics to mere vote, there is no more upward mobility in terms of political importance, other than through the unlikely channels of successfully becoming some sort of journalist. By this I mean that I suspect the problem is that we are too democratic in that we fail to recognize and give importance to those, for lack of better phraseing, actually know what they are talking about. If we look at the Koch brothers and their massive donations or attempts to buy elections, there is at least a small argument that money is an extension of free speech. So, if we just grant that the Koch brothers' actions are legitimate following that line of reasoning, it becomes clear that the problem is simply that influence has nothing to do with political intelligence.
Until we find a way to remedy this situation, I fear that our problems will persist. Politics always has been and always will be a serious discussion severely dependent on competence. That should not be lost in our democratic politics. Hannah Arendt and her idea of the council democracy in On Revolution that was influenced by Jefferson's writings seem like a good direction to be start in. 

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