the national interest

There’s a Chance American Democracy Is Not Doomed

Independence Day (1996). Photo: ?20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

During the Obama era, a number of liberal writers, including this one, have grown fascinated with the prophecies of the late political scientist Juan Linz. Noting that presidential systems (as opposed to parliamentary ones) have a persistent tendency to collapse into coups, Linz argued that failures were endemic to their design. They created two elected bodies, both of which could claim popular legitimacy, without any strong mechanisms for settling power struggles between them.

Matthew Yglesias surveys American political history and its rising polarization through the prism of Linz’s analysis, and concludes that our political system is doomed. The U.S. was the exception to the otherwise-universal worldwide trend of presidential systems falling apart only because its unusually loose parties lacked the motivation and partisan willpower to push their powers to the limit. Now it is only a matter of time until a crisis brings it down. (“What if a disputed presidential election coincided with a Supreme Court vacancy? What if the simultaneous deaths of the president and vice president brought to power a House Speaker from the opposite party? What if neither party secured a majority of electoral votes and a presidential election wound up being decided by a vote of the lame duck House of Representatives? What if highly partisan state legislatures start using their constitutional authority to rig the presidential contest?”) And this is not even considering other, lower-probability scenarios.

Yglesias’s case is convincing, and he may be right. There is, however, another possibility he does not consider. Perhaps the most dangerous thing about American politics is not its institutional design but the unique power of its right wing. And perhaps, since the far right’s power is not immutable, American presidentialism can outlast it after all.

Yglesias presents the dysfunctional partisan gridlock of the Obama years as a mechanical expression of partisan self-interest. Republicans realized early on that their best strategy for regaining power lay in withholding support for any elements of Obama’s agenda. But if this strategy reflects nothing but the inexorable progression of a polarized system, why did we see so few signs of it in the previous administration? Congressional Democrats negotiated over, and provided some support for, many of George W. Bush’s major initiatives: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, post-9/11 security expansions, tax cuts, education reform, prescription drug coverage, and others. While they did resist his plan to privatize Social Security, Democrats offered to negotiate over his putative goal of preserving its solvency if he agreed to give up privatization.

Perhaps the Republican legislative boycott is not only a strategy, but also a reflection of an ideology. Perhaps Republicans and Democrats cannot compromise over the shape of the state because the GOP’s reigning public philosophy makes legislative compromise impossible. After all, the shape of our presidential system is not the only thing that separates the U.S. from other industrialized democracies. The other major difference is that the United States is the only advanced democracy whose major conservative party rejects the principle of universal health care, has leading figures influenced by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and opposes even the tiniest revenue increases on principle.

Photo: Columbia Pictures

The episodes described by Yglesias could just as easily support the alternative hypothesis that the real problem is the right. The philosophy of staunch ideological opposition to any expanded role for the federal government dates back to the beginning of the Republic, and has had its strongest influence in the South. Yglesias makes a brief attempt to hold up the 19th century as further evidence that the American political system does not work very well. “We had ideological parties (or at least one) in the 1850s when the anti-slavery Republican Party rose to the fore,” he writes, “But the example is not enormously encouraging — the constitutional process collapsed and we had four years of civil war.”

But the Civil War was not caused by a Linzian dispute over the competing legitimacy of Congress and the presidency. It was caused by a substantive dispute over slavery, which was heavily infused with irreconcilable ideas about states’ rights versus federal power.

What Yglesias describes as polarization between the parties could also be thought of as the conservative movement’s gradual rise to unchallenged power within the Republican Party. In the 20th century, archconservatives had a foothold within both political parties but did not dominate either one. Republican presidents like Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford — and, to a lesser extent, Reagan and Bush — managed coalitions that included moderates as well as conservatives. The conservative movement launched a brief and viciously contested insurgency to capture the Republican nomination in 1964, after which it receded and then slowly climbed to power.

Photo: Columbia Pictures

It’s true that you have no chance to successfully negotiate policy with a party that rationally perceives total opposition as its self-interest. It’s also true that you have no chance to successfully negotiate policy with a party that regards taxes, spending, and regulation as inherently wrong. Of course, the conservative movement is not committed to the abolition of the federal government. Its pattern is to greet every proposed expansion of federal power with hysterical doomsaying, then eventually forget its earlier beliefs without accounting for them. Thus conservatives during Obama’s first term passed around Ronald Reagan’s warnings about Medicare (it would extinguish freedom itself!) and applied them to Obamacare, forgetting that its specific predictions were, as it turned out, lunacy. Indeed, Obama-era conservatives could even fiercely oppose cuts to Medicare as part of a strategy for decrying a different (far more market-friendly) health-care expansion as socialism.

The good news, from the standpoint of both liberals and anybody concerned for the long-term stability of American government, is that the conservative movement’s control over the Republican Party is probably not sustainable. American conservatism’s power is deeply rooted to white American racial identity. That identity formed a plausible national majority for much of America’s history, but its time is rapidly slipping into the past. The steady growth of racial minorities is projected to continue for decades. Eventually Republicans will adjust to the new demography, which means they will have to abandon conservatism as we know it, which has only appealed to white voters in the context of racial polarization.

Obviously there are lots of ways the future could unfold. It’s conceivable that the p.c. left, which refuses to recognize the legitimacy of opposing views, will one day take control of the Democratic Party (in which its influence remains marginal). Polarization could rise through some different mechanism. Or perhaps my whole way of looking at the problem is wrong — the rise of the right has merely coincided with increasingly frequent constitutional hardball, and that even more ideologically moderate parties will find themselves unable to navigate our rickety constitutional framework. The point is simply that we don’t know that the American system cannot survive. It may collapse. But perhaps it will outlive the demographic viability of the conservative movement’s domination of the Republican Party.

There’s a Chance American Democracy’s Not Doomed