The biggest objection I received to my invocation of Hooker on Obamacare and the government shutdown, unsurprisingly, was that these statements of his could not take into account the particular Constitutional structures of the United States. He wrote in an age and in a constitutional setting where there really was very little recourse if you didn’t like the law—it was the Queen’s way or the highway, so to speak. Sure, there was a Parliament through whom elected representatives made decisions on behalf of the body politic, but its power was limited, and its claim to meaningfully represent the people was fairly tenuous by our modern standards. The right and wrong current debate in the United States Congress could not, of course, be adjudicated by standards from 16th-century England, but only by standards applicable in 21st-century America—including, above all, the Constitution. So the objection went.
Of course, I was well aware of the anachronism of the post, which I sought to humorously highlight in its title. I do not think, however, that the appeal to the American constitutional system affects my core point in invoking Hooker; for, as I have sought to highlight in the previous installment, this concerned the rhetoric and attitude behind current Republican obstructionism, rather than its mechanism per se. It is quite possible to stay within the letter of the law in the means of political opposition used, without in any way maintaining an attitude of respectful obedience toward the law. Indeed, it is my contention that the forms in which this objection has been voiced simply reinforces the fundamental problem of political and societal breakdown that I wanted to highlight in my post.
I have been told that using such measures as a government shutdown or potential debt default as bargaining chips to pass legislation is simply “democracy at work,” and that the “power of the purse” is a “political weapon” that the Constitution “granted to the House to be employed as it was found to be necessary.” Of course, debates over to what extent the current crisis is unprecedented or routine have become a prominent part of the partisan back-and-forth over the past week. I do not feel historically-qualified to resolve them entirely, although I have become reasonably convinced of the following conclusions:
(1) there is considerable precedent for using government shutdowns as leverage for resolving policy disputes, even if the current situation is uncharacteristic by virtue of the sheer boldness of the Republican demands, which, requiring as they did the overturn of such a signature and significant piece of legislation, could not really be considered as a good-faith negotiating position
(2) there has been considerable precedent of negotiating against the backdrop of an impending debt-ceiling, in which the possibility of default loomed as an implicit threat above the heads of both parties, but the current situation is largely distinctive inasmuch as Republicans have turned this implicit threat into an explicit ultimatum, inasmuch as their core demand (the repeal of Obamacare) is essentially extraneous to the budget debate itself, and inasmuch as their demands were so exorbitant that they could never conceivably be attained by ordinary political means. (For more on this, see the interaction between Jonathan Chait and Ross Douthat here, here, here, and here).
So commentators on the left are unfair to treat all of this as wholly unprecedented political terrorism. However, that does not mean that it is reasonable to describe all of this simply as business as usual, or “democracy at work.”
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that our founders were not interested in “democracy” as such. They were interested in republican government that put buffers of representation between the often ill-informed and capricious public and the legislators. Changes in the way representatives are elected have made them more immediately accountable to the people, with both good and ill effects; more importantly, however the rapid expansion of mass media over the past fifty years has meant that politicians can directly influence public opinion, and are directly influenced by it, far more than ever before. The result has been that they have increasingly refocused their efforts from negotiations aimed at persuading one another to PR campaigns aimed at persuading the masses, as we have seen in particularly appalling fashion in this recent showdown: neither the Democrats nor the Republicans need to put any effort into talking to one another, if they can succeed in persuading the American people to put the blame, and thus the pressure, on the other party. Given the fact, therefore, that public paranoia about Obamacare has been largely stoked by the Republican legislators themselves, there is no moral weight in their claim to be representing the “will of the people” in channeling public opposition to the law. This is particularly so given the degree of ignorance and misapprehension that surveys have discovered among the voting public on both the Affordable Care Act and budget deficits. The task of legislators is to lead, not follow. If, as leaders, they have well-conceived, well-informed opposition to the policies being pursued by the executive, then they may act accordingly; but this opposition must be informed by their own well-reasoned arguments, not by opinion polls that they are busy manipulating with their own PR campaigns.
But, leaving that aside, are we really witnessing “democracy,” or any other form of responsible government, “at work”? On the contrary, situations such as the current impasse seem quite self-evidently to be examples of a breakdown of the political process, not a shining example of constitutional order in action. This should be evident from the very language being used by its defenders, that of “weaponry.” A weapon is the sort of thing that one uses against one’s enemies, not one’s friends, and thus, normally, against other nations, rather than against one’s own people. To invoke the use of “weapons” against other members of the body politic, particular one’s leaders, is a tacit admission that a state of civil war has been reached. That the weapons are still political, and not yet physical, is some consolation to be sure, but at the very least it signals a breakdown of the political process, rather than its orderly functioning. The political process, ideally, is one of deliberating together about the common good of the whole, and, when differences arise due to the divergent interests of different factions, committing to resolve these differences via persuasion, and, to invoke Hooker again, “submission to some definitive sentence,” rather than by means of coercion. To be sure, politics often falls far short of this ideal, but we should at least have the clarity of mind to recognize failure as failure, rather than glorifying it as “democracy at work.” To threaten the American people, and the international community, with the possibility that we as a nation will not honor our ongoing commitments, will not follow through on the policies we have already passed and the financial obligations we have incurred, and with all of the destructive consequences of such failures (and let’s make no mistake—the consequences of such failures can only be destructive) is a form of coercion. The presence of such expedients within our current political structure (which, while within the bounds of our Constitution, certainly do not seem to have been envisioned in their present form by its framers) means that these possibilities loom as implicit threats above the budget negotiation and debt ceiling-raisin process. However, to make this implicit threat explicit, to “weaponize” the possibility of default, in Jonathan Chait’s terms, is an acknowledgment that politics, in the normal sense of the word has failed, and coercion must be employed instead; it is an acknowledgment that the body politic is at war with itself. And, once all hyperbolic rhetoric has been set aside, that’s a pretty sobering acknowledgment to make.
Those who claim that we are witnessing our system working as it was designed to like to point out that our founders were interested in creating an extensive set of “checks and balances,” which would enable conscientious factions of the body politic to thwart other factions seeking to impose their will on the whole—indeed, even enabling minorities to thwart the majority when necessary. In this, our political system was meant to be a bit like capitalism itself, channeling competition, rival models of the best way to do things, so that from the struggle, the best solutions would emerge. But like capitalism, such a competitive system can only function inasmuch as its participants are committed to a certain code of honor, traditional rules of fair play. If the participants throw these to the wind, and engage in unrestrained “survival of the fittest” competition, then the checks and balances that provided useful buffers can become weapons of mass social destruction. Congress has never been particularly honorable, but in recent years, we seem to have witnessed an increasing breakdown of the unwritten rules that restrained partisanship from getting out of hand, resulting in hostage-taking scenarios like the current showdown.
But it is not enough to say that, “Well, we have a great system, as long as people are willing to be good.” We have to be willing to consider the notion that perhaps there are some structural flaws in our political system. This is heresy to many on the Right, including especially the Christian Right, which seems intent on elevating the US Constitution to near-equal status with the Bible. But the fact is that, while the Constitution may have been far ahead of other nations at the time it was written, political structures have made some progress since then, and it stands to reason that some other nations may have a thing or two to teach us about some aspects of good political order. Among these, I would suggest, are the notion that a debt-ceiling vote is not a good political weapon to leave lying around—even if it is benign enough most of the time, it could do enormous harm in the hands of extremists—and that it’s irresponsible to separate the authorizations process (by which Congress determines to carry out certain policies, and roughly how much they’ll cost) and the appropriations process (by which it actually agrees to pay for them, often after they’re already well underway—it is the breakdown of this latter that has led to the government shutdown). More importantly, the lessons of other nations might suggest to us, as Spanish political scientist Juan Linz argued, that the presidential system (which separates between the legislative and executive) is inherently unstable. The vast majority of other developed nations have developed a parliamentary system, in which the legislative majority forms a government, which then functions as an executive (often notionally limited by a separate head of state, such as a constitutional monarch). Linz observed that presidential systems, “are based on dual democratic legitimacy: No democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people” (I recommend, whatever else you may think of his partisan viewpoint, reading Jonathan Chait’s insightful application of Linz’s arguments to the current situation in a recent NYMag article).
Of course, to those who fetishize the notion of “checks and balances,” this misses the whole point. We don’t want any one party to be able to claim an incontrovertible mandate, and to be able to unite the machinery of government, because, they say, this will lead straight to tyranny; we need to gum up the system as much as possible with rival viewpoints to protect liberty. But I’m not convinced, and not just because there is little evidence, to my mind, of most parliamentary systems spiraling downward into the throes of tyranny (at least, as usually defined), whatever else their problems. In fact, I want to suggest that this fundamentally misunderstands the way in which tyrannies usually arise, historically, and that to fetishize “limited government” is actually to risk its downfall. Richard Hooker (whom one must always quote if possible) once wrote, in a wry but insightful truism, “I am not of opinion that in simply in Kings the most, but the best limited power is best.” In other words, the most limited is not always the best limited. Why? Because governments, at some point, need to govern. If they are so checked, and so balanced, that they can never get moving, and no policies can ever get passed, then problems in society will continue to build up unresolved (as the healthcare problem has in our country for decades) until…well, until what? Well, I would suggest that the endpoint of such political paralysis is more often than not some kind of coup or revolution, as the public becomes so exasperated with their dysfunctional government that they become willing to support a suspension of constitutional order, if only someone with enough energy, charisma, and determination will take charge and address the urgent needs and injustices that have piled up. This, after all, is how Hitler came to power—not because the Weimar constitution gave too much power to its executives, but because it gave too little. The popular conservative narrative of how tyrannies arise—the public being lulled into complacency as the government gradually, year by year, decade by decade, assumes to itself more and more legal powers—is actually very hard to match up to historical examples. Most arise quite suddenly, and with substantial public backing, in response to social crises, often precipitated by political dysfunction.
But what about the soft tyranny that conservatives complain about so loudly, the great bloatation of laws and regulations that destroy efficiency and intrude into every corner of citizens’ lives, confronting them with red tape at every turn? Surely it is this that we need our checks and our balances to prevent? Surely, no stubborn, hostage-taking obstructionism in Congress is too much, if that’s what it takes to keep government from getting so overgrown? True, sometimes, but again I think that the opposite is often demonstrably the case: often it is precisely too much obstructionism that results in the dense thicket of inefficient rules and regulations. Consider the current, absurdly-complex US tax code. It didn’t get that way because the liberals gained the presidency and a supermajority in both houses of Congress, and decided to ram through legislation imposing thousands of pages of detailed rules and exceptions and loopholes and exceptions to those loopholes, and so forth. No! If one party gained and kept that kind of control, I expect the tax code would be fairly simple. The complexities, which lead inexorably to overgrown bureaucracy, grow out of the need to make compromises with the opposition, and because it is much easier to hold out a carrot than a stick, these compromises usually involve more subsidies, more regulations, etc. And the more stubborn the opposition is, then the odds are the more the complexities and bureaucracy will grow. Obamacare, in fact, is another example. The sprawling federal bureaucracy that has grown up to administer it has done so partly in response to the refusal of states to administer it on their own. Smooth, streamlined, minimally-intrusive governmental operations are more likely to be the result of broad consensus at the high levels of government, rather than a determined opposition trying to “limit the government” at every turn. None of this is to suggest that we would do well to chuck our Constitution and settle for a hopefully-benign dictatorship. But it is high time to wake up and realize that the best way to genuinely limit government is to work toward consensus, rather than being maximally contrarian.
This may all be well and good for normal situations, some will say, but what if Obamacare is so bad that it warrants being maximally contrarian, warrants using every “weapon” in our political arsenal to oppose it. I will turn to address this in my final installment, later today.