Is Democracy Killing Democracy?

Illustration by Mark Nerys

The tea-party movement takes its name from the mob of angry people in Boston who, in 1773, committed a zany criminal stunt as a protest against taxes and the distant, out-of-touch government that imposed them. Two years later, the revolution was under way and—voilà!—democracy was born out of a wild moment of populist insurrection.

Except not, because in 1787 several dozen coolheaded members of the American Establishment had to meet and debate and horse-trade for four months to do the real work of creating an apparatus to make self-government practicable—that is, to write the Constitution. And what those thoughtful, educated, well-off, well-regarded gentlemen did was invent a democracy sufficiently undemocratic to function and endure. They wanted a government run by an American elite like themselves, as James Madison wrote, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” They wanted to make sure the mass of ordinary citizens, too easily “stimulated by some irregular passion … or misled by the artful misrepresentations” and thus prone to hysteria—like, say, the rabble who’d run amok in Boston Harbor—be kept in check. That’s why they created a Senate and a Supreme Court and didn’t allow voters to elect senators or presidents directly. By the people and for the people, definitely; of the people, not so much.

So now we have a country absolutely teeming with irregular passions and artful misrepresentations, whipped up to an unprecedented pitch and volume by the fundamentally new means of 24/7 cable and the hyperdemocratic web. And instead of a calm club of like-minded wise men (and women) in Washington compromising and legislating, we have a Republican Establishment almost entirely unwilling to defy or at least gracefully ignore its angriest, most intemperate and frenzied faction—the way Reagan did with his right wing in the eighties and the way Obama is doing with his unhappy left wing now. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and their compatriots are ideologues who default to uncivil, unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance, as Keith Olbermann does on the left. Fine; in free-speech America, that’s the way we roll. But the tea-party citizens are under the misapprehension that democratic governing is supposed to be the same as democratic discourse, that elected officials are virtuous to the extent that they too default to unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance and refusal. And the elected officials, as never before, are indulging that populist fantasy.

Just as the founders feared, American democracy has gotten way too democratic.

This new la-la-la-la-la-la refusenik approach to politics is especially wrong in the Senate, which was created to be the “temperate and respectable body of citizens” that could, owing to its more gentlemanly size and longer terms, ride above populist political hysteria. And it’s ironic that the most effective tool on behalf of tea-party purity, the cloture-proof filibuster, is a crudely undemocratic maneuver, permitting a minority of 41 to defeat a majority of 59. (How fitting that “filibuster” and “tea party” both derive from maritime criminality—to filibuster is to freeboot, or hijack debate like a pirate.) Senate filibusters used to be rare, a monkey wrench used only in cases of emergency, meant to allow debate to continue unimpeded and to protect minority opinion from being ignored. In the sixties, the decade of civil rights and the Great Society and Vietnam, there were never more than seven filibusters during one Senate term; in 2007–2008, scores of Republican filibuster threats resulted in cloture motions. The Democrats aren’t innocent in this downward spiral of truculence: Under Bush, they regularly filibustered to stop the confirmation of judicial nominees.

On health care, even though the Senate bill isn’t remotely radical, the Republicans’ refusal to play along at least follows the contours of principle. But on the issue supposedly animating the post-Bush GOP and the tea-partiers, the massive deficit, a bi-partisan Senate bill to establish a bi-partisan commission to rein in future budgets was just defeated with 23 of 40 Republicans voting no—including a half-dozen of the bill’s original co-sponsors.

The framers worried about democratic government working in a country as large as this one, and it’s possible that we’ve finally reached the unmanageable tipping point they feared: Maybe our republic’s constitutional operating system simply can’t scale up to deal satisfactorily with a heterogeneous population of 310 million. When the Constitution was written and the Senate created, there were around 4 million people in America, or about one senator for every 150,000 people. For Congress to be as representative as it was in 1789, we’d need to elect 2,000 senators and 5,000 House members. And so I wonder, as I watch Senate leaders irresponsibly playing to the noisiest, angriest parts of the peanut gallery, if the current, possibly suicidal spectacle of anti-government “populism” in Washington isn’t connected to our bloated people-to-Congresspeople ratios. As the institution grows ever more unrepresentative, more numerically elite, members of Congress may feel irresistible pressure to act like wild and crazy small-d democrats.

Illustration by Mark Nerys

Decadent, powerful elites have been the bogeyman for two centuries of American populists. The Jeffersonians’ elite antagonists were the merchant class. (Never mind that Jefferson was America’s first great free-spending, radicchio-growing, cheese-and-wine-importing, European-architecture-loving liberal.) The elite loathed by Jacksonians was the same one the populist right loves to hate 180 years later: the federal bank, urban cosmopolites, wimpy intellectuals.

The populist impulse isn’t always or altogether bad. Two decades after the 1890s People’s Party proposed a progressive income tax and the direct election of senators, the Constitution was amended accordingly.

But the powerful fuels of populism are the sorts of violent passions the framers sought to contain. In the sixties, the Republicans, sensing the resentments of post-civil-rights whites, saw their opening to supplant the Democrats as America’s populist party. Yet as the conservative social historian Christopher Lasch wrote in 1991, in order to achieve its oxymoronic modern form—the populist pro-big-business party—the GOP “needed to stir up resentment of elites without stirring up the old populist resentment of capitalists.” And so for nearly half a century, the Republicans have depended on populist pandering to the resentments of put-upon working-class whites—to fear and loathing of liberals’ lah-de-dah attitudes about crime and abortion, of gays, of science, of immigrants. To make their national comeback, the Democrats had to do their own oxymoronic reinvention, becoming less populist economically (balanced federal budgets, less welfare, free trade) but more populist superficially (Elvis-loving, Big Mac–gobbling, horn-dogging, Sister Souljah–disapproving Bill Clinton).

While the tea-party movement is not populist in a coherent economic sense, it has all of populism’s worst historical features—not just the conspiracist paranoia about malign elites but also the desperately nostalgic sense of dispossession, the anti-immigrant anger, the anti-intellectualism. Notwithstanding the racist signs at tea-party rallies, let’s stipulate that most tea-partiers aren’t racist. Yet according to a new poll by Research 2000 commissioned by Daily Kos, 36 percent of Republicans think President Obama wasn’t born here and another 22 percent aren’t sure. If Obama were white and his father had been, say, Norwegian, there wouldn’t be much of a “birther” movement. As an unabashedly elitist African-American, Obama has an unprecedentedly synergistic super-badness in the right-wing populist demonology.

In only one economic realm do modern populism and Republicanism neatly coincide: The less taxes, the better. But the Republicans would be unelectable if they also pushed for cuts in Social Security and Medicare, the populist-socialist benefit programs everyone loves. So 30 years ago they abandoned their core principle of prudent budgets, becoming the don’t-tax-but-do-spend party of fiscal cynics and/or magical thinkers.

California is a big canary in this mine. Because the state makes it so easy to put policy initiatives on the ballot—a legacy of turn-of-the-century populism—the passage of the property-tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978 put the state on the road to fiscal ruin. And the fact that passing budgets in the California Legislature requires a two-thirds supermajority means the state has become almost ungovernable, especially since the recession. Reactionary, monomaniacally anti-tax populism—that is, too much democracy and too little elite wisdom—has crippled California.

One certainly understands why populist anger is roiling America. But the crazy contradictions at the heart of today’s Bizarro World populism—TV millionaires calling for insurrection, capitalists slagging the underprivileged—was evident at the moment of the tea-party movement’s genesis a year ago. That was the morning when CNBC’s Rick Santelli, a former trader, got a mob of financial-industry guys at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to loudly revile, on live TV, those poor suckers who took on too much of the financial industry’s too-easy debt.

“How about this, president and new administration?” said Santelli. “Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?”

Traders around him cheered.

“You know,” Santelli continued, “Cuba used to have mansions and a relatively decent economy. They moved from the individual to the collective … We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July. All you capitalists … I’m gonna start organizing.”

It was just amazing, like a scene from some 21st-century remake of A Face in the Crowd, the 1957 Elia Kazan film about a charismatic populist hayseed who gets his own hugely successful TV show, then becomes a pawn of corporate tycoons and an adviser to a conservative presidential candidate. “Hey, Rick?” one CNBC anchor said, “can you do that one more time, just get the mob behind you again?

What Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” isn’t limited to the right, of course. But true left-wing populism is a fringe whose political stars—Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader—have next to no national traction. Then there’s Michael Moore, of whom only 31 percent of Democrats have a “favorable opinion,” according to a Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll last year. One reason populism has become a much more potently right-wing tendency during the last 60 years, I think, is that the left is no longer capable of signaling that it mistrusts racial or ethnic (or now sexual) minorities. Populism without contempt for definably exotic groups lacks a certain political oomph, it turns out.

Still, Obama is now making gentle swerves in the populist direction. He called the Supreme Court decision unleashing corporate political expenditures “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health-insurance companies, and the other powerful interests.” About the fees he wants to impose on banks, he said, “We want our money back.” Like Franklin Roosevelt, after saving the capitalist system, he has to do political battle with the capitalists he saved.

“We all hated the bank bailout,” Obama said in his State of the Union speech, which the Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley called a “populist message delivered with patrician restraint.” But in fact, the message and certainly his proposals aren’t really very populist—which is fine by me. What I wonder is whether paying lip service to anti–Wall Street, anti-corporate sentiment, Obama style, can really work in a time when populism has become so much about cultural resentment and lumpenprole style.

“Powerful influences,” FDR said in a speech at (James) Madison Square Garden just before his first reelection, “strive today to restore that kind of [Republican] government with its doctrine that government is best which is most indifferent.” His first term had been a “struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking … They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Because Franklin Roosevelt was an actual patrician, with lots of socialists to his left and unabashed capitalists to his right, he could deliver a populist message with full-throated populist fervor. Candidate Obama was thrilling to we non-populists because he didn’t resort to the standard populist bag of tricks—no vitriol or demagoguery, no blame-mongering, no pseudo-simple solutions to staggeringly complex problems. And so now he is caught in a Catch-22: As a black man, he got elected by proving to white voters that he was not angry or resentful or hotheaded, that he utterly lacked the populist temperament—yet as president he’s faulted for lacking a populist’s passion and rhetorical oversimplifications.

California is a big canary in this mine. Too much democracy and too little elite wisdom has crippled the state.

If his opponents are hysterically overreacting to Obama policies—such as the comparatively reasonable GOP congressman Paul Ryan’s warning of “early signs of Hugo Chávez economics”—others may be hysterically overinterpreting his political decline. The polling data doesn’t look so terrible except in comparison with the (hysterically) positive numbers he racked up in the giddy weeks around his election and inauguration. For the year before that, according to nine straight Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls, about half the country had positive feelings toward Obama, and about a third felt negatively—the same level to which both numbers returned by last summer, and where they remain today.

To the degree that fiscal discipline really is a major tea-party issue and a source of general anxiety—that seems to be what got Scott Brown elected—Obama can lead the charge to make the hard choices the way Clinton did, by governing like an old-fashioned balanced-budget Republican. With the discretionary-budget freeze and his announcement of a presidential commission that would constrain entitlements, he’s taken a modest first step.

But are there enough sober designated drivers willing to ignore the tea-party frenzy and seriously engage? “That’s pandering populism,” GOP senator Judd Gregg said about colleagues to his right and left trying to stop Ben Bernanke’s reappointment as Fed chairman, “There’s a lot of populism going on in this country today, and I’m getting a little tired of it myself. What it’s going to do is burn down some of the institutions which are critical to us as a nation.” Okay: That’s one Republican, maybe, sort of.

Of course, in a democracy, the people, even the unreasonable and crazy people, have to be made to feel they’ve been heard. But the job of serious Washington grown-ups with big populist constituencies—both presidents Roosevelt, Reagan, even Richard Nixon—is to respond to the rage with the minimum necessary demagoguery, throw them a few bones to calm them down, and then make deals with your fellow members of the elected elite. Civility and sanity and prudence prevail, as the founders intended. Obama’s plainspoken human-to-human give-and-take with the House GOP caucus the other week was a perfect model for how the Washington elite could walk together back from the brink.

But it’s possible that the populist impulse is now too powerful for the elite to reassert control. In the old days, the elite media really did control the national political discourse; there were no partisan, splenetic cable news or ubiquitous talk-radio channels and no blogosphere to keep the populists riled up and make them feel the excitement of a mob. Until fifteen years ago, presidents and congressional leaders could pretty well manage the policy conversations, keep them on reasonable simmer. But the new technologies have, maybe permanently, turned up the political heat to boil.

When George Bush and John McCain tried to pass immigration reform, they were defeated by their own populist right. And in this election year, the appeal of nay-saying and politics-by-tantrum will be strong. For the Republicans, the tea-party movement is an irresistible opportunity to double down on the crackpot emotionalism, an edgy new little anti-Establishment brand extension nominally (but not ideologically) distinct from the tired, discredited old GOP, something like what pseudo-microbrews like Land Shark Lager and Red Dog are to Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. If the Republicans, as a result, stick to their just-say-no game, what’s at risk is not merely Democratic majorities and Obama’s reelection, but—not to get too hysterical—the future of the republic. Apart from practical paralysis on addressing the big issues like health care and entitlements and energy, this extreme and practically nihilistic divisiveness, refusal as virtue, could become the new normal. In a Times dispatch from the Davos conference, Tom Friedman wrote that our political emotionalism and congressional dysfunction are freaking out the global leaders who depend on the U.S. to be the grown-up. Of course, “the Davos elite” is one of Pat Buchanan’s contemptuous populist terms of derision.

Americans are rustic and bumptious, sure; that’s part of our charm. And every so often we endure a big populist outburst. But if the elite really goes native, then we’re in trouble. “It’s time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice-presidency,” Sarah Palin said in 2008, and in 2012 I have little doubt she’ll be a normal Joe Six-Pack American seeking the presidency. Along with, perhaps, Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck. If an unknown, inexperienced African-American could do it, why not one of them? Fortunately, during the last half-century, large majorities of Americans have turned sensible every time populist push came to shove, declining to make George Wallace, George McGovern, Nader, John Edwards, Kucinich, Mike Huckabee, or Ron Paul president. When it comes to reenacting our patriotic founding story, we’d better keep choosing to play the deliberative gentlemen engaged in careful compromise more than the apoplectic vandals dressed up as Indians and throwing things overboard.

Is Democracy Killing Democracy?