Michael Maiello's picture

    Democracy's Tricky Ending

    Over at Vox, Matthew Yglesias argues that American Democracy is Doomed.  The flaws that have taken down every other constitutional republic in the world will one day come for America, irrevocably altering the system and ending the experiment of 1776.  It's a neat essay.  He's also set up his argument so that you'd have to be an extremist American exceptionalist to say he's wrong.

    As dysfunctional as American government may seem today, we've actually been lucky. No other presidential system has gone as long as ours without a major breakdown of the constitutional order. But the factors underlying that stability — first non-ideological parties and then non-disciplined ones — are gone. And it's worth considering the possibility that with them, so too has gone the American exception to the rule of presidential breakdown. If we seem to be unsustainably lurching from crisis to crisis, it's because we are unsustainably lurching from crisis to crisis. The breakdown may not be next year or even in the next five years, but over the next 20 or 30 years, will we really be able to resolve every one of these high-stakes showdowns without making any major mistakes? Do you really trust Congress that much?

    I think the only problem with Yglesias' argument is that it's too apocalyptic.  He's waiting for some sort of identifiable, world-changing crisis. But this is why apocalyptic thinking is almost always wrong -- the world is usually sneakier than that.

    Maybe it's the third season of House of Cards talking, but I see as more plausible a crisis that the public never knows about.  In House of Cards a manipulative congressman manipulates his way into the White House without ever winning a national election. Of course, it's melodrama, but what speaks to me about it is how something in the system can be so clearly wrong but how people will mostly just accept it, if it doesn't impact their lives too much.  For all the talk of individualism, people tend to bend towards authority figures.

    Yglesias writes about the 2000 election, for example.  It really is amazing to me what a nothing of an issue it has been.  Even if it had not been eclipsed as a news event by 9/11, it seems that people, including Bush's opposition, were quite willing to let the matter drop once the initial furor burned out.  There's a certain belief in the system at work that allows for a good number of Americans to accept outcomes that are contrary to their desires.  There's little will to unmake such systems, despite much rhetoric.

    Where House of Cards gets things wrong is that one power couple manipulates the system for their own ends.  In reality, I think things are more complicated.  The manipulators would be well placed in corporate and political America and they would represent interests larger than their own. The trick would be to undermine the constitutional democracy while keeping all of its trappings.

    Giving corporations the same rights as individual citizens, for example, would very much accomplish that. It subverts democracy because corporations have extreme wealth and potential immortality but it's an idea that can fit seamlessly into our rhetoric (once people start talking about Google's rights, the argument has been lost).

    I'm pretty sure that whatever cataclysm might result that most people will never notice there was a problem.  The revolution will not be on the Facebook feed.



    Nice read, Michael. I'm only on Episode 8 so no spoiler alerts please. (The better version of the series was produced under a parliamentary system).

    Sometimes I think political writers should get out of the office more. What in heck is so revolutionary about having to go from crisis to crisis. Most of us do it every day. Most businesses do it. I think the truth behind all the confrontation is that both parties operate within an oligarchical driven system---the real differences being less than what they seem, the fights ego-driven as much as anything else. Will these differences be substantial enough (more than, say, whether Doug finds Rachel) to remedially force us into a change in our constitutional form of government---well, I'm not ready to accept that ending of the story. 

    Anyhow, I got a couple of broke down trucks I need to get back on the road. Just trying to kick up some road dust here.

    No it is not doomed.  We have been here before and pulled back the power of the oligarchy.  We will do it again.  

    The fact, you say we have been here before, is exactly what works against us, the ruling class knows from past experience where their weaknesses were and they have added more bulwarks to strengthen their positions in order to repel our offense.  

    We cannot win a defensive war.   

    They attack our strengths. 

    Look at what  happened to NPR, and what it did to our lines of communications.

    What happened to NPR was largely countered by the rise of the internet. While arguably the programs were fine, what essential can't we get through countless blogs? That people listen to / watch Fox is simply a matter of choice.

    The bigger issue is they are simply attacking all the time - they don't have a life, or rather they're 24x7 maniacs and they think that's cool. Accepting that whatever period of civility that existed in our youths is largely gone, we've got to figure out how to deal with that - combination of offense & defense, or some kind of sanity check. The fact that the power of the presidency has tamped down some of the Teabag/GOP craziness despite a majority avoids the big issue of what happens when the crazies control the presidency - next year, 4 years, 8 years - they're patient like people who bury 1000-year-eggs. And this time they'll control the legislatures & judiciary.

    We also learned too. We now have net neutrality as a line of communication.  Pelosi just handed the RW nuts their ass over the DHS shut down. Democratic leadership is in a full throated objection to the Trans Atlantic Treaty that is being done in secret. Don't forget demographics is changing rapidly now.  We have to deal head on with climate change for the human raise to survive. That means we will have to pull the rug out from underneath the corporations to start dealing with it.  

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