No, democracy is not “doomed”
Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias has become so despondent that there is no longer an award named after him that he has decided that American democracy is doomed. Though I have to say, he pretty much hedged his bets:
Some day — not tomorrow, not next year, but probably sometime before runaway climate change forces us to seek a new life in outer-space colonies — there is going to be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else.
So yeah, American democracy stands a good chance of having gone the way of the dodo by the time the Earth is dead and the human race is living among the stars. And I’d wager it has an even better chance of being gone by the time all those stars explode and the universe collapses back into itself. So you might want to store some water and dried food in the basement, just in case.
Still, hedging aside there’s little doubt Yglesias believes that American democracy today is the equivalent of the sixth season of the X-Files. Sure, it still looks pretty and the ratings seem strong, but the decay and absence of new working ideas is disintegrating the very foundation of this precious thing we hold so dear and it’s only a matter of time before we elect Robert Patrick and Annabelle Gish to the White House. Yglesias’s reasons are what you might expect:
- The two major parties don’t get along, are seemingly always gridlocked, and have a hard time getting anything done.
- The executive branch is growing in power.
- The country itself is deeply polarized.
- Politicians resort to “Constitutional hardball,” which Yglesias quotes Mark Tushnet to define as legal and political strategies “that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understanding.”
Yglesias largely blames all of the above on the increased focus on ideological purity — or as one plucky young writer from the sticks once described it, “the creeping victory of being consistent of being judicious.” (If you’d like a more comprehensive take on his position, I invite you to peruse the posts of our Liberal Democracy Symposium, where many here argued Yglesias’s points back in 2012.) Despite these dire predictions, however, things are not so gloomy as they appear — or, at least, as dire as they appear to Yglesias.
As regular readers here are well aware, I share Yglesias’s concern about ideology in today’s electronic-media driven world. After all, ideological dogma carries the whiff of potential danger even in the best of times. In today’s climate it’s far too easy for us to create a steady stream of information — accurate or not — that adheres to our ideological narrative. With no dissenting data to force us to question our dogma, we run a far higher risk of being caught in a downward spiral toward bad and fundamentally flawed decisions. Where Yglesias and I part ways, then, is what this ultimately means. For Yglesias, it means we are clearly at death’s door. For me, it means the possibility an increasing number of terrible public policy decisions that could take us years or decades from which to untangled ourselves. That’s bad, but it’s not exactly dire.
I’ve noted before that the men’s rights movement is a good microcosm of this phenomena with closed-loop ideology. Watching what has happened to the MRM community over the past five years is like watching the past twenty years of movement conservatism along with its worst potential twenty-year future on fast forward. But here’s another thing to remember about the MRM faithful: For all of their distasteful bluster, their messages are entirely symbolic. Yes, there are a few who walk the no-more-women-forever-I-mean-it walk, but the vast majority of them live pretty mundane and mainstream lives. For most of them it’s the symbolism of what their leaders say that drives, not the reality of that content. I guarantee you that if you could waive a magic wand and give the so-called Men Going Their Own Way the choice to go to magical land where women didn’t exist, 95% would balk. And here’s the thing: in this way, they are not so different from the rest of us.
When you look at the the Internet, cable news, the punditry, and the rhetoric of the more junior class of politician in this country it really does appear that we are polarized. Indeed, from that vantage point it appears that we are already on the brink of the very civil war or coup Yglesias hopes and doubts we can avoid. But that’s all a lie, packaged and sold to us by the Internet, cable news, the punditry, and the rhetoric of the more junior class of politician in this country.
The truth is that for a country of 300+ we’re actually remarkably on the same page — even for the issues we think divide us the most. We just hate admitting it to ourselves and each other.
Look: The reason the Democrats passed the ACA and not universal healthcare wasn’t that they “spinelessly gave in.” They didn’t pass universal health care because most people — including democrats — really didn’t want universal healthcare. After they are done yelling at one another, most Americans are okay with abortions up to a certain point and not so much after. We’ve totally managed to get the so-called polarization of climate change to allow us all to be where deep down we really want to be: Concerned enough about global warming that it gets talked about, but not so concerned that our lives are actually inconvenienced in any meaningful way. Taxes, safety nets, affirmative action, public works, education — these are all things that the vast majority of us are really pretty close to one another on.
Sure, we’ll cheer when our team takes one side on the environment and hiss as the other offers a counter arguemnt. But like MRMs who cheer essays of a world where only men exist, it’s mostly symbolic. We all talk a good game, but try floating the idea of quadrupling gas taxes in a blue state or taking away public schools in a red one and see how many state offices you get elected to. And if you don’t believe me, wait and see what happens if SCOTUS guts the ACA. I will bet you a round of top shelf scotch that within a month the GOP will be floating a bill that looks exactly like the ACA with a “Now With Smaller Government!” sticker slapped on the cover.
In fact, I’ve always found it interesting that people who lament on Tuesday that we are hopelessly polarized are always the same people who lament on Thursdays that our country has become so homogenized. And when I say “always,” I mean it. Because none of this new, really.
One of the inherent problems with those of us who are pundits, politicians or political junkies is that we tend to see everything through the lens that tells us that we are the most important thing in history, and therefore we must be living it its most monumental time. That’s why ever since I first got interested in politics back as a teen, the Yglesias’s of the world have been convinced that what they see before them is a harbinger of either the end of times of some wonderful new Utopia that will be the End of History. But of course, it never is. It’s all just stuff. And maybe the best way to illustrate what I mean and take us out is this:
In his essay, Yglesias leans heavily on the Senate filibuster. He points out — rightly — that it’s largely broken. But that doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. A dysfunctional filibuster isn’t a sign of the American armageddon. It’s just this thing that used to work okay that now doesn’t work so well. If you look in the rearview mirror, you’ll see out entire history is littered with such discarded devices and mechanisms. The filibuster itself is one of those things we invented on the fly as a quick fix way back when. It isn’t in the Constitution any more than whichever of Obama’s actions you think are unconstitutional is . It’s just something that Aaron Burr once noticed could be used if you squinted really hard when looking at the way the Senate rules were worded. The Senate filibuster might survive as is, or the rules for how you filibuster might be changed, or it might be changed entirely. Any of these things can happen, and it does not flow from either that democracy must tumble.
So yeah, I won’t take Yglesias’s bet that by the time the Earth dies and the human race is living in outer space American democracy might be a historical footnote. But I’d also bet him a good chunk of change that our children’s children’s children will be be celebrating it during America’s quadcentenial.
 We can all quibble about who is the cigarette smoking man who happily leads us to our doom in this analogy. I’m going on record here and saying it’s the Kardashians.
 They will eventually, but that’s a topic for another day.
[Picture via wikia]