Why Madisonian Democracy Still Can't Have It All

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, FILE

This hasn’t been a good month for fans of Madisonian democracy.

One thing that most parliamentary systems are exceptionally good at avoiding is the kind of deadlock over policy that stilled our democratic government’s heart and has left us two weeks deep in a shutdown.

As a result, those who are skeptical of our separate institutions sharing powers are out in full force. It’s no surprise; liberal preference for the British system over what the Framers concocted goes back at least to Woodrow Wilson. Not all of the current anti-Madisonians agree on exactly what they would prefer, but there’s a general critique they share: not only does the U.S. system yield gridlock and risk collapse, but it doesn’t really have any advantages in terms of democracy to justify that inefficiency. I’ve argued against the efficacy claims recently—the problem is a broken Republican Party, not the structure of government—but I think the democracy claims are wrong as well.

Dylan Matthews, for example, quotes Max Weber for what Matthews says is his “favorite theory of democracy”:

In a democracy the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, 'Now shut up and obey me.' "People and party are then no longer free to interfere in his business. … Later the people can sit in judgment. If the leader has made mistakes — to the gallows with him!

But as Matthews admits, how people approach elections, in the aggregate, isn’t much better than rewarding and punishing the government based on how the economy is doing. It’s worse—it’s not even how the economy is doing since the last election, but only how it’s been doing lately. There’s a bit more to it, as votes will punish governments that engage in costly wars or perhaps major scandals; indeed, on the margins, voters will punish governments for things such as bad weather that are beyond the reach of those governments.

Still, while punishing politicians because they happen to be in office when a bad storm shows up or the local sports team loses (yup, voters might punish incumbents for that, too), might be unfair to particular politicians, it’s good overall because it sets incentives correctly: I agree with Matthews that it’s good, all else equal, if elected officials try to produce things that voters like.

While Matthews is correct about elections and voters, the good news is that there’s potentially a lot more to democracy than what he sees.

It’s true that voters, in the aggregate, don’t do much more than reward and punish the big stuff. That’s in large part because most of us are partisans who will vote for our party no matter what. It’s also true that, in the aggregate, most of us don’t care very much about most issues of public policy. But that masks something important: many of us—probably most of us —do care about bits and pieces of public policy. A proper democracy should find some way for that to matter. On top of that, many of us may want to participate meaningfully in self-government ourselves. That, too, should be possible in a proper democracy.

What the Madisonian system of separated institutions sharing powers does is it allows for—encourages—that richer, deeper version of democracy.

It does that through the kind of meaningful representation facilitated by individual elected officials who have meaningful influence as individuals. That’s the advantage of the transformative Congress. In typical parliamentary systems, the parliament itself only approves of what the government (the Prime Minister and the rest of the cabinet) does. At best, if that’s the case, then all a constituent can hope for is that she will agree with what the representative does. But representatives in Congress can and do initiate bills (and just as important, amend bills) totally outside of whatever the White House might want. That allows a far deeper form of representation; constituents are able to press their representatives and their senators to become involved in specific areas of public policy and take specific substantive actions.

Or, to think of it from the point of view of the politician, there are a wide variety of representative styles available to those serving in Congress, as the political scientist Richard Fenno has described in detail in his studies of politicians. They can promise to focus on national issues; on narrower local issues; they can offer mainly symbolic representation or substantive accomplishments; they can promise Burkean independence or strict adherence to the wishes of the district. In a typical parliamentary system, none of that is really available because the job of MPs (at least those who are not cabinet ministers) is mostly to just vote with their party. 

The separations between the House, the Senate, the presidency, and state governments also encourage less ideological, more permeable political parties. Now, it’s certainly true that the Democratic Party of the mid-20th century, with a liberal northern wing and a very conservative southern wing, was a historical oddity. But less dramatic regional differences between parties are common throughout U.S. history (Republicans had their old split between a mostly-Midwestern conservative faction and the Eastern Establishment of moderates and liberals); our current sharply polarized parties are in some ways as historically unusual as the old Dixiecrats were—and may not last, either.

Even now, individual senators break with their parties all the time. Differences emerge between presidents and their congressional parties, or between same-party governors in different states, or governors and their same-party state legislators. That’s by design; it’s exactly what Madison discusses in Federalist 51 when he talks about setting ambition against ambition.1 1. "But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place … A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

Those within-party differences are important, again, because they mean that the representative relationship between each individual politician and her constituents really matters. Of course, most voters, most of the time, with most of their (many, many) elected officials, don’t get involved enough for that relationship to mean much to them. But because all those politicians matter individually, and not simply as members of a party, the distance between voters-as-voters and a more active participation in democracy is very small.

I think it’s no coincidence, either that a polity which encourages individual politicians to compete for influence has generally given its government bureaucracy a relatively small and constrained role. That, too, is a more democratic outcome. Indeed, the dangers to self-government from bureaucracy was one of the great worries of 20th century political theorists, Weber very much included. If bureaucratic organization was simply more efficient than any other form, then the realm of pure administration would encroach more and more into the realm of political decisions, leading to a rule not of the people and their representatives, but to a kind of rule of no one: a rule of procedures and forms and processes. It’s safe to say that the United States has less of that than most comparable large democracies.

Is the Madisonian system flat-out more democratic? I’m tempted to conclude it is, but one should probably be careful about it. There are massive differences between various different parliamentary systems; there are also all sorts of norms which can make all the difference. The details matter, too. The Senate’s malapportionment has no democratic justification, for example, although (as can be seen in state governments, which nowadays must be one person, one vote) that’s a defect not inherent in the overall system.

Overall, however, there’s nothing democratically deficient about separated institutions sharing powers. To the contrary: it’s exactly the kind of system which allows for a richer, more substantive, and more participatory democracy—for at least the closest that anyone has figured out how to get to Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people, for the people.

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