11 July 2011

Defining Democracy Down

Do you get the sense that Americans' patience with the negotiations between the President and the Republican congressional leaders over raising the debt ceiling is wearing thin? The pundits' patience, it seems, is frayed to the point of snapping. Matt Miller borrows a phrase from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan to argue that both parties have "defined democracy down" by becoming so dysfunctional that "relief masquerades as accomplishment," presuming that we get relief. Moynihan himself wrote of "defining deviancy down." He's quoted by Miller thusly:

[W]e have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the 'normal' level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.

Miller adds: "If that doesn't capture Republican behavior on the debt limit, I don't know what does." But he doesn't let the President off the hook, though he deplores Obama's helplessness rather than any gross "deviance." The President's shortcomings, Miller argues, really reflect our "deviant" democracy, which he describes as a "shrunken sense of collective possibilities." This he blames partly on America's shrunken economic power relative to other countries, and tentatively on the American Bipolarchy.

Questioning whether any leader can alter our current dynamic -- if that's really the right word for gridlock, Miller speculates: "Maybe no one operating in our two-party system can -- the interest group and ideological barnacles are just too thick." He then asks, "Why do we have a nominating process that leaves moderates such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman pandering to a few hundred thousand conservative voters in idiosyncratic states? How can we expect to make progress when two years of every four are consumed by presidential campaigns?"

From the perspective of political science, Americans first defined democracy down when they opted for representative government instead of direct democracy, as they probably had to in a vast nation of virtual nations -- the states -- in 1787. They may have defined it down further when the people's representatives rejected the notion that the people could instruct them how to vote on important questions. But even that arguably debased standard was defined down decisively when Americans deferred to political parties for the selection of candidates for offices. Why do we have the nominating process Miller deplores? Because we organize elections and ballots around parties, and we let the parties tell us who our choices are. We are so used to this process that it is probably literally impossible for many Americans to imagine a different way to recruit someone to serve in government. But this is not the way the Founders expected officeholders to be chosen. The ballot in any state, paper or electronic, would probably look like abstract art to the first generation of the republic, and they wouldn't necessarily be convinced of the ballot's necessity or effectiveness, especially if they judged the system by its current products, as Miller does. Independents and insurgents struggle for access to ballots, but the ballot itself may limit the spontaneity of popular organization during crisis times such as these times seem to be. The physical limits of the ballot and the time constraints of finalizing it before Election Day may innately constrain the responsiveness of public opinion and its range of options in the emergency of inadequate choices. Representative government may be inescapable in a continental republic, but Americans added an unnecessary layer of representative government when they acquiesced in party domination of elections. If we want to redefine democracy upward, we must explore alternate means of choosing our representatives and demand that election law provide them. If partisan legislatures refuse to provide the necessary remedies, the people's ultimate remedy may prove to be democracy in its rawest form.


d.eris said...

Have you ever looked into the GOOH group's strategy, Sam? I haven't studied their proposed strategy/process very closely as of yet, but it's one idea for plan to bypass the party system in the election of candidates.

See: http://goooh.com/

Anonymous said...

In order for any real change in the political process, the average American has got to smarten up. They have to be willing to keep themselves informed on what, exactly, their elected representatives are doing and how it affects them and the nation in general.

Those on the left have got to grow a spine and those on the right have got to lose the fear and hatred that rules their existence.