Thursday, January 28, 2010

Threats to American Democracy

Two pieces in The Atlantic recently got me thinking broadly about threats to democracy as an institution in America. The first was this (somewhat melodramatic) response to the State of the Union by Andrew Sullivan, and the second was this article on "American decline narratives" in the most recent print edition of The Atlantic. I want to clarify that I don't think that our republic is collapsing. I firmly believe that we will not only continue to maintain our super-power status (albeit probably sharing it with others) over the decades to come, but that we will also shape the future of the human race in the same way that Rome's legacy reverberated through the centuries, long after the Italian peninsula devolved into a collection of squabbling city-states. However, I do think there are a few very real threats to American democracy. The first two are quite recent developments, emerging over the last decade or two. The second two are more long-standing, but still disconcerting.

1. The Filibuster and a Dysfunctional Congress

Under Senate rules, three-fifths of the Senate must vote to limit debate (cloture) before a bill is voted on. This amounts to a requirement that any legislation controversial enough to raise the ire of the minority would require 60 votes, rather than 51, to pass. It's not a completely unreasonable rule. It helps defend against the "tyranny of the majority" by requiring broader agreement - certainly a good thing. It prevents an overbearing majority leader from preventing Senators from saying their piece on a piece of legislation. All in all, it doesn't have to be a bad rule. But in the hands of the modern Senate, it has swiftly become not a defense against the "tyranny of the majority", but a tool for the tyranny of the minority. In the 1960s, no Senate term had more than 7 filibusters. That pace had increased by over seven-fold in the first decade of the 21st century, when no Senate term had less than 49 filibusters. The 110th Congress set a record of 112 filibusters against the Democratic majority, a huge spike in activity. While recent Republican filibustering has been most notable, the modern increase in the utilization of filibusters is unequivocally bipartisan. While the filibuster can certainly be justified in any given situation, it's modern use has hampered representative self-government. Judicious application of idiosyncratic rules is not undemocratic, but persistently applying a super-majority standard on legislation is. Trends in the confirmation of presidential nominees are comparable. According to the Alliance for Justice, every administration since the Carter administration has seen a lower percentage of its judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate than the previous administration. As of November, less than a quarter of Obama's nominees have been confirmed. Once again, taking a principled stand against judicial nominees is fine, but nobody can reasonably claim that Bush's nominees were less than half as qualified as Reagan's (91% confirmed vs. 44%), or that Bush's nominees were about twice as qualified as Obama's (44% vs. 23%). In the end these practices don't simply obstruct an opposing party; they obstruct American self-government.

2. Mandatory Expenditures in the Federal Budget

The year 2009 was the first in American history in which every dollar of federal revenue was dedicated before Congress voted on a single spending bill. Whether it went to Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt, or prior defense appropriation bills, every dollar of federal revenue was allocated without a single vote from the Congress elected to office in the fall of 2008. Naturally, that didn't prevent the new Congress from continuing to appropriate money - they simply borrowed money to cover their expenses. Gene Steuerle has tracked the growth of mandatory spending through his "Fiscal Democracy Index", which is the percent of government revenue not allocated for mandatory programs. This index has declined markedly over the last several decades, and like the rise of the filibuster it is a bipartisan failure. Also like the filibuster, the problem isn't mandatory spending or entitlement programs per se; the problem is that these things have gotten so out of hand and out of proportion to our revenue collection that once again, they prevent us from governing ourselves. We collect taxes to pay for the projects and decisions of previous Congresses. That isn't self-government, that is the tyranny of the past. An increasing share of our budget also goes to interest payments to foreign creditors. There is nothing wrong with borrowing money from abroad. It is a practice that has gone on for centuries. But as it increases we lose our influence of our domestic policy making.

3. The Misuse of American History

One of the trends that has bothered me recently is the use of the Boston Tea Party as a symbol for the Tea Party movement, as well as the broader populist-libertarian fusion movement spearheaded by Ron Paul. I've previously opined on this phenomenon here, but in a nutshell my point is simply that the rallying cry "no taxation without representation" has effectively been truncated after the first two words, when the Founders had placed considerably more emphasis on the second two words. Many of the Founders did obviously embrace a much smaller government than we do now, but this observation is misleading for two reasons: (1.) many of them were not supporters of small government in the first place, particularly the Federalists, who included some of our most honored patriots. (2.) Social and economic life has changed considerably since the 18th century. New public goods have emerged and the characteristics of American civilization have changed. We do know that Thomas Jefferson was, in his lifetime, what we would now call a "libertarian". We have absolutely no way of knowing whether Thomas Jefferson, observing the conditions of the twenty-first century, would be anywhere close to being a libertarian today. His approach to public goods issues in his writings on publicly supported education suggest that he may have been staunchly opposed to modern libertarianism. Particularly in the cry "no taxation without representation", but repeatedly elsewhere, the Founders demonstrated that the crux of the American revolution was not necessarily small government, but representative government. This isn't to say that small government isn't an important part of American civilization. It was extremely important in the 18th century, and it still is an essential value today. Broadly speaking, all Americans still share the sentiment that "the government that governs best governs least". The point is, it must be the people who decide what those parameters on government are. Recent misuses of American history don't simply provide fringe political movements with cover for their ideologies: they purge our history of it's emphasis on self-government, just as the abuse of the filibuster prevents my Senators from representing me, and just as excessive mandatory spending prevents my representatives from appropriating my tax dollars.

4. The American Imperium

I had a very hard time finding good data to capture the extent of the American military empire, but I still believe this is worth noting. The first thing that I found very quickly was that the absolute number of troops stationed abroad is currently lower than it had been mid-century. With the end of the Cold War and Vietnam, our only substantial deployments are in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I think there is still cause for concern. First, current military operations are considerably more capital-intensive than previous operations, which were quite labor-intensive. Therefore, deployment might not be the right metric. We are also on a war footing in Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that we weren't in Europe during the Cold War, and we started these wars in a way that we didn't in Korea or Vietnam. Another qualitative difference is our unequivocal military superiority, which far surpasses any advantage we previously had over the Soviet Union. If you add to this our proxy-powers (Israel, Egypt, etc.), the American military empire, spread out in over 700 international bases, is formidable. Once again, empire in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. Our security umbrella over Western Europe (which arguably still exists) was a force for good that fostered democracy. Some of our territorial occupations are justified as a temporary means of stabilization after a necessary war. But empire nevertheless introduces risks. Overextension, the militarization of foreign policy, and unjust occupation of foreign territory can serve to weaken self-government here and abroad. Lethal force is an appropriate policy tool in certain circumstances, but it is a dangerous tool because it is also the primary method of squelching liberty and democracy. At least since the Enlightenment, human beings rarely willingly acquiesce to subjugation. It must be forced upon them. And the more we extend our military empire, the more likely we are to be the instrument of that subjugation.

Conclusion. None of these threats make the failure of American democracy inevitable. I personally think such a failure is highly unlikely. But that doesn't make these problems any less threatening. The point is, they have to be overcome. Some positive developments are already apparent. The Gang of 14 admirably prevented excessive dysfunction in the Senate for a brief period. No end is in sight to the rise in mandatory spending, but policy makers are definitely cognizant of the problem, and there has recently been discussion of more reasonable revenue policy. In addition, entitlement reform has been featured in health reform legislation. Our misuse of our own history is obviously a much harder trend to fight, and our military empire seems equally irreversible. Nevertheless, General McChrystal has recently indicated that he wants to begin negotiations with the Taliban, and President Obama has already drawn down troops in Iraq. Nothing is ever certain, and as I hope I've emphasized there is nothing inherently wrong in many of these trends. The problem is unsustainable excess in each of these areas. A solution is attainable, and worth fighting for because it will define the legacy of the United States of America for centuries, if not millenia, to come. Greek and Roman statesmen and thinkers still influence the way we live today: an absolutely humbling realization. And yet the American Republic is more expansive and powerful than Rome could have ever dreamed of being. We need to maintain an American Republic that will beget a civilization in 4010 A.D. that we can be proud of, just as Rome laid an admirable foundation for civilization today.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.