Our constitutional system has survived, largely intact, for 227 years. And while current conditions have produced gridlock, those conditions are not cast in stone. (More)

Whither Our Democracy, Part III: Muddling Through (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at the growing fractures in our society and political system. Thursday we considered whether our constitutional crisis will trigger a separation or, at least, a creeping balkanization. Yesterday we explored whether we might move toward a parliamentary system. Today we conclude by asking if we’re mistaking a transitory strain for a permanent condition.

Less democracy, better government?

When Vox’s Matthew Yglesias warned that “America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse,” you could predict that many pundits and political scientists would disagree. As we’ll see below, they did. But you might not have guessed that some prominent libertarians think shelving democracy would be a good thing:

Garett Jones, associate economics professor at George Mason University, says that there should be less democracy in the United States, according to a talk he gave on Feb. 24.

Jones says that less democracy and more epistocracy could lead to better governance. Democracy leaves power to the majority while epistocracy allocates power to the knowledgeable. Jones did not imply that democracy should be eliminated, but lessened by 10% for the sake of long term economic growth.

According to Jones, less democracy would lead to better governance because politicians would be inclined to work on long term growth rather than spending to impress constituents during election season. Politicians try to please the public at the expense of neglecting long-term policies because they are elected through a democratic process.

Jones cites extensively from George Mason University colleague Bryan Caplan, who argues our democracy is only tolerable because rich people dominate it:

In The Myth of the Rational Voter, I discuss several mechanisms that might explain why, given public opinion, democracies’ policies are better than you’d expect. But I was simply unaware of the facts presented in Martin Gilens’ new Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Gilens compiles a massive data set of public opinion surveys and subsequent policy outcomes, and reaches a shocking conclusion: Democracy has a strong tendency to simply supply the policies favored by the rich. When the poor, the middle class, and the rich disagree, American democracy largely ignores the poor and the middle class.

While Caplan insists that Gilens’ data don’t prove that means government makes the rich richer, Gilens doesn’t have to prove that. Other data prove the rich have taken almost all of the economic growth for the past three decades. Regardless, Caplan likes the idea of rich people dominating government:

I find Gilens’ results not only intellectually satisfying, but hopeful. If his results hold up, we know another important reason why policy is less statist than expected: Democracies listen to the relatively libertarian rich far more than they listen to the absolutely statist non-rich. And since I think that statist policy preferences rest on a long list of empirical and normative mistakes, my sincere reaction is to say, “Thank goodness.” Democracy as we know it is bad enough. Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.

Before you dismiss them as two unknowns, both Jones and Caplan are researchers at the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank funded by the Koch brothers. They have a very loud, very well-funded megaphone. If Koch-funded groups succeed in their quest for political dominance, their solution to gridlock would be to make elections irrelevant.

“Constitutional decadence”

But Vox’s Dylan Matthews foresees our government increasingly dominated by the president:

Assuming we won’t have a world war or second Great Depression in the next few decades, we’ll be confined to normal, run-of-the mill crises. Those aren’t the problem. The risk is that congressional gridlock – which will only worsen as parties polarize on ideological lines – will make major revisions to statutes and changes in the fiscal status quo next to impossible.

Any president worth his salt is going to want to make major revisions to statutes and to alter the fiscal status quo. They’re going to want to raise taxes on the rich and increase transfer programs, or slash taxes across the board while restructuring entitlement programs, or rewrite No Child Left Behind and make Medicare more cost-effective, and so on. Their legacy as more than placeholders depends on leaving some kind of legislative mark.

So they’re going to gradually start using executive powers to adjust policy in those domains.[…]

This won’t be a fast process. But if I had to guess, I’d say that the Congress of 2050 will largely serve to ratify policy decisions the president made unilaterally.

The New York TimesRoss Douthat agrees:

At the same time, Yglesias’s prognosis – that all this could very easily end in a constitutional crisis or even a coup scenario – seems less persuasive than his diagnosis. Precisely because our presidents are currently finding ways to advance their policy objectives amid gridlock, what seems more likely to me is that if these trends continue, they’ll just push us deeper into a kind of true presidential democracy, in which the system stabilizes around the understanding (already implicitly present in our politics ad the media coverage thereof) that the presidential campaigns are the ones that really matter, and that congressional limits on the executive branch are more like guidelines, nice to have but fine to ignore when energetic governance requires it.
So even though what Yglesias is describing is a problem, and potentially a big one, it could easily give us an extended period of what you might call constitutional decadence, rather than ending soon in crisis or collapse.

“A slow erosion of America’s advantages”

Ezra Klein completed Vox’s trilogy by predicting that our current system will muddle through, but not well:

This isn’t a critique of the political system our Founders envisioned. It’s an admission that we are not in the political system our Founders envisioned. The Constitution was designed for a political system without organized parties, where senators were elected by state legislatures and where no one had ever heard of a filibuster. The system we have today is not the system the Founders believed they were building.

But here’s where I think Yglesias wrong: America’s political system isn’t going to collapse. It’s going to muddle through. The changes needed to make it manageable will be less sweeping than the problems might imply, in part because the quality of governance Americans will accept is lower than we might like to believe.
The eventual result is likely to be a political system where periods of divided government are characterized by paralysis and brinksmanship, but the president wields more power, and there is more protection against disaster. When governing majorities do exist, they will govern more aggressively – much as the Democrats did in 2009 and 2010.

This will not solve the fundamental problems in America’s political system, but it will keep the system from being overwhelmed by them. As such, the root dysfunction – that America’s political system is not built for, and does not work amidst, highly polarized parties – will not lead to the collapse of American democracy so much as a slow erosion of America’s advantages. Much that needs to get done simply won’t get done. What does get done won’t be done well.

Klein predicts that “erosion of America’s advantages” will be offset by similar or worse political sclerosis in Europe, China, and elsewhere. Simply, governments will be less able to create and develop opportunities, or mitigate risks … but average voters won’t know whom to blame or how to fix it.

“A permanent fact of political life?”

Writing at the Washington Post, political science professor Daniel Drezner is less pessimistic:

Yglesias embeds three assumptions into his argument that need to be seriously unpacked.

First, Yglesias assumes that continued political polarization is a permanent fact of political life. Now he might be right about that, but I see no reason to take that as a given.[…]

Second, Yglesias assumes that there will be continued divided government ad infinitum. For these constitutional crises to happen, different political parties have to control different branches of government. And this has certainly been happening more often than not, recently. But even as political polarization has increased over the past generation of American politics, there have been periods of single-party control of both the legislative and executive branches.

These are significant points. It’s easy to mistake current conditions for permanent states, especially when they’re grounded in structures rather than personalities or events. But Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress from 2003-2006, and Democrats controlled both from 2009-2010. While it doesn’t seem likely Democrats will recover the U.S. House before the 2020 census – at the earliest – voters could move, or events could turn their focus toward issues more favorable to Democrats. In other words, we should be wary of “looking through the wrong end of the telescope.”

“Unconvinced that the alternatives are any better”

Drezner particularly challenges Yglesias’ call for a parliamentary system:

Finally, Yglesias assumes that parliamentary systems inherently produce better governance outcomes. Fun exercise: Consider the post-2008 political and economic performance of the advanced industrialized economies. It turns out that, comparatively, if one looks at unemployment, economic growth and deleveraging, the United States has done pretty darned well. Part of that is obviously due to the large American market and structural strengths of the U.S. economy. But part of that is due to the political stability that comes with a presidential system.
Yglesias wanted to provoke a conversation about the future of American democracy in a polarized country, and I applaud him for it. The problem is that one has to consider the alternatives, and in a world of low growth and multiple parties, the parliamentary system of government can actually be more unstable than the presidential system. So, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, while Yglesias is correct to point out the many flaws of the U.S. system of constitutional government, I’m unconvinced that the alternatives are any better.

One example does not prove a thesis, but I think Drezner has a point. Our current system has problems, but no president since Richard Nixon has been forced out of office before the end of his elected term and we haven’t been forced to dissolve Congress and hold new elections. Such upheavals are fairly common in parliamentary systems.

A Proportional Presidential System

Another solution might be to combine the best elements of parliamentary and presidential systems, as Jim W suggested in a comment yesterday:

The proposal appears to confuse “proportional representation, where each party’s bloc in parliament reflects its percentage of the party preference vote.” with the prime minister versus elected president question. If we had proportional representation based on the national vote, we would have extra democratic senators providing a majority vote for the president.

At first glance, that seems impossible, as Article V of the U.S. Constitution all but guarantees each state an equal number of senators:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate. [Emphasis added.]

But there is a way around that. We could, by constitutional amendment, adopt party preference voting and proportional representation – in both the House and Senate – by allocating the “extra” seats to regions rather than individual states.

To continue yesterday’s example of the 2012 elections, we saw that the (hypothetical) 51-49 party preference vote would have given the Democrats 41 extra U.S. House seats. These might be divided among five roughly equipopulous regions:

Northeast – ME, NH, VT, MA, RI, CT, NY, PA, NJ, DE, MD
Southeast – FL, MS, AL, GA, SC, NC, VA, WV
Midwest – ND, SD, MN, WI, MI, IA, IL, IN, OH, KY, TN
Southwest – MO, AR, LA, TX, OK, KS, NE, CO, NM, AZ
West – AK, WA, MT, OR, ID, WY, CA, NV, UT, HI

To ensure fairness, the amendment should require the number of extra seats to be the nearest multiple of five that allows the proportional balance. In the 2012 case, the Democrats would get 40 extra seats and choose 8 unelected members from each region.

The same 51-49 party preference vote would have required allocating extra Senate seats. Specifically, the 23 Democrats and 8 Republicans who won in 2012 would have been seated, giving Democrats a 53-45 advantage. Both Independents committed to caucus with the Democrats, bringing the total to 55-45. To achieve proportional representation, 15 extra seats would be allocated – three from each region – bringing the Senate to 115 members. Of those 15 extra seats, 4 would be Democrats and 11 would be Republicans, making the party totals 59-56 and matching the 51-49 party preference vote.

If we assume the party preference vote would mirror the presidential outcome – as seems likely – this would ensure that an elected president enjoys majorities in both the House and Senate, minimizing gridlock while preserving our presidential system.

Indeed I would hold a party preference vote only in presidential years. Midterms could change locally-elected senators and representatives – and require reshuffling the extra seats – but the parties’ proportions in Congress would remain until the next presidential election.

And if that seems like the ultimate example of muddling along … well, that’s the American way….


Happy Saturday!