Americans with their democratic roots generally do not trust elite bureaucrats to the extent that the French, Germans, British, or Japanese have in years past. This distrust leads to micromanagement by Congress through proliferating rules and complex, self-contradictory legislative mandates which make poor quality governance a self-fulfilling prophecy. The US is thus caught in a low-level equilibrium trap, in which a hobbled bureaucracy validates everyone’s view that the government can’t do anything competently. The origins of this, as Martin Shefter pointed out many years ago, is due to the fact that democracy preceded bureaucratic consolidation in contrast to European democracies that arose out of aristocratic regimes.
I often come back to a line of thought very similar to this when pondering why our modern political system is so dysfunctional. I suspect that one of the big concepts from our always infallible and sainted founding fathers that conservatives want to resurrect is their deep antipathy toward direct democracy:
The Economist loves freedom, as America’s founding fathers did. So democracy has always been, for us and the founding fathers, a “mere” afterthought to liberty, a means not an end. James Madison (pictured), in particular, was wary of even using the word “democracy” lest Americans confuse its representative form with its direct form; he preferred “republic”. So did Benjamin Franklin. Asked by a Philadelphian what form of government the constitution of 1787 had created, he replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
While all that sounds lovely in theory, a high-functioning republic is predicated on the good faith of the people holding elected office. When you lose that good faith, either through corruption or wanton acts of nihilism like the current GOP’s filibuster brigade in the Senate, the only way to rectify the situation is through aggressive oversight (yeah, good luck on THAT) or the intervention of more direct democracy. As The Economist notes:
Voter initiatives, referendums and recalls were introduced a century ago during the Progressive era, for good reasons—frontier politics were corrupt and direct democracy was a way to circumvent venal legislatures.
But woe betides the republic that ever abdicates its power into the hands of direct majoritarian dominion:
Since the 1970s, direct democracy has become something very sinister. Starting with California’s infamous “Prop 13″, which capped property taxes and also required two-thirds majorities in both houses of the state legislature to raise any future taxes, voter-initiative industries sprang up in various states that now churn out ballot measures as though by conveyor belt. Getting enough signatures to qualify an initiative for the ballot is easy for sponsors with lots of money, who can afford to pay college students a dollar or more for each signature they collect in a mall. [...]
The result is dysfunction. States with excessive direct democracy, such as California, Oregon and Arizona, now face daunting budget deficits because the recession has exposed the cumulative legacy of past voter initiatives. Voters love schools, hospitals, prisons, and trains. They also hate the taxes that pay for them. Recessions are often triggers of fiscal chaos, whereas ballot-box budgeting is the cause.
The question of how to fix all this is one of the most complicated sociopolitical problems I can imagine.
We live now in an age awash in corporatist corruption, which presumably necessitates ever-greater populism in order to purge our government of hacks beholden only to the donors that keep their bloated, diseased careers afloat.
But, with rampant populism unleashed in 51 distinct and separate incubators, I fear that the competing forces of majoritarianism will never be able to climb down off their ledges and find a way back to whatever level of homeostasis we’ll need to maintain in order to dial back the clock from our mutually assured destruction.
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