What ails democracy, and who is to blame?
Faced with the disruptive impulses that have given rise to Donald Trump and more recently to Great Britain’s disastrous exit from the European Union, a chorus of commentators has laid the blame not on out-of-touch elites, but on average voters.
The real problem, we hear, is not that economic and political systems have concentrated power in the hands of too few, but that voters have too much sway over the process. In a widely-circulated New York Magazine article last month, Andrew Sullivan blamed a “hyperdemocracy” born of ever-expanding freedom and egalitarianism for the rise of Trump.
The danger of “democratic wildfires” was precisely what led the Founding Fathers to establish checks and balances in the form of tightly circumscribed voting rights, the Electoral College, and the separation of powers, Sullivan argues. “To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob,” he writes, the Founders “constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power.”
Jonathan Rauch similarly invokes the Founders in his recent Atlantic cover story “How American Politics Went Insane.” The Framers “worried about demagogic excess and populist caprice,” writes Rauch, “so they created buffers and gatekeepers between voters and government.” But their “serious omission,” Rauch warns, was any system to hold politicians accountable to one another, most notably through robust political parties.
Rauch celebrates the “parties, machines, and hacks” who keep the wheels of government turning, and argues that since outside groups now spend so freely, parties should be allowed to raise big money. Rauch acknowledges that it’s too late to restore parties and their allies back to their “19th century glory,” but suggests that a return to backroom deals, earmarks, and political money deregulation would cure what he calls our political “chaos syndrome.”
It would be nice if getting Washington back on track were as simple as throwing out the political party limits, or bringing back the “Old Bulls” who once ruled Capitol Hill. But congressional gridlock goes way beyond party coffers, and reflects deep divisions in the electorate itself. Democrats report high levels of fear, anger, and frustration with Republicans, and vice versa; and voters in both parties have moved increasingly toward ideological extremes on the right and left. The center, which is where deals are made, has disappeared.
As I have argued before, parties already enjoy vastly expanded fundraising powers, thanks in part to a measure dramatically lifting limits for special party accounts that was slipped into an omnibus spending bill in 2014. Under these new rules, an individual may give as much as $1.6 million to a political party in a single election cycle—hardly chump change. Rauch’s argument that political money reforms have weakened parties and “middlemen” might be more convincing if those restrictions had actually been enforced. But near-total paralysis at both the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service has made the campaign-finance system, in practical terms, more deregulated today than at any time since Watergate.
Sullivan, too, shrugs off any link between big money and the current political breakdown, declaring that “the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultra rich has been mostly a dud.” Among other examples, he cites “the swift, humiliating demise of Jeb Bush,” who lost the GOP primary despite nearly $100 million in super PAC spending on his behalf. Here, Sullivan makes the common mistake of regarding big money only through the lens of presidential elections. As a report this week from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law illustrates, big money, much of it undisclosed, is exploding at the state and local level, where it often exerts far greater influence than in national politics.
Both Rauch and Sullivan overlook the key players in our American democracy: Voters. In addition to being increasingly polarized, voters are enraged over an economic and political system that they perceive as rigged against them. In just the latest of several polls pointing to broad bipartisan anger over political money, an Issue One-Ipsos survey found this week that 94 percent of Democrats and 95 percent of Republicans say their views are left out of the political process. Also this week, a Marketplace-Edison Research Poll found that 71 percent of Americans think the economy is “rigged” in favor of certain groups.
In the U.S., the price of this voter anger has been paid most heavily by the GOP. Republicans have largely turned a deaf ear to their own voters’ rising concerns about crony capitalism, Wall Street influence, and rising income inequality. Trump filled a vacuum left by the GOP’s failure to respond to working class Republicans. For all their angst over Trump, Republican Party leaders have yet to fundamentally revisit a policy agenda that still caters largely to the 1 percent.
And that’s the great thing about democracy: Voters get the last word. Rauch, Sullivan, and other elite commentators can tut-tut about the great, unwashed electorate. But rigging the system still further against average people will hardly fix what ails democracy. The period of 19th century political party “glory” that Rauch recalls so fondly is better known as the Gilded Age—a time when corruption, political fraud, and economic inequality were rampant. It was followed by the Progressive Era of political and economic reforms. It remains to be seen whether Election Day brings still more chaos—or whether, as it has so often in the past, our voter-driven system demonstrates that it is awfully good at correcting itself.