Is American democracy still doomed?
I have some concerns
Back in March of 2015, I published an article titled “American Democracy is Doomed,” expressing a pessimistic outlook on the sustainability of American political institutions.
Trump was a joke candidate when I wrote that, but ever since he was elected (and especially after the January 6 insurrection), people have often asked me what I think does and doesn’t hold up in the piece. But I’ve been reluctant to revisit this because what I was trying to say in that piece was completely different from what is typically meant by “threats to democracy” post-Trump.
The Doom thesis has nothing to do with populism or the authoritarian streak in the GOP or even anyone doing anything wrong. It’s based on the observation that the United States has a set of political institutions — a president and a bicameral congress, separately elected and designed to check and balance each other — that have mostly failed everywhere they’ve been tried. When the U.S. military conquers another country and sets out to write a new constitution, we normally do not encourage them to copy our political institutions. The state-of-the-art thinking is that instead, you want a parliamentary republic with a largely symbolic president and an executive team led by a prime minister who is accountable to a parliament.
Trump-era politics has actually made me a little less concerned about ideological conflict between the branches leading to collapse simply because Republicans seem to have relaxed somewhat about rolling back the welfare state. But what stops me from saying, “I’ve rethought this thesis, I actually think polarization is going down now” is that the conservative movement has simultaneously embraced some starkly anti-democratic concepts that bring the basic threat back into view.
The Linzian breakdown
The classic Juan Linz democratic breakdown scenario stems from something like the 2011 debt ceiling standoff; ideologically driven gridlock in the face of imminent disaster lead to the president deciding (in good faith) that he needs to essentially set the rule of law aside in order to discharge his higher responsibilities to the country. During the Obama administration, we kept walking up to that line only to have someone blink at the last minute.
But suppose we get the Simon Bazelon Scenario for 2022 and 2024 and Democrats obtain an average performance in terms of the popular vote, leaving the country with President Donald Trump, a House majority, and 61 Republican Party senators.
Now suppose none of the Trump-specific threats to democracy emerge. Republicans enact some right-wing policies, face some public backlash, and lose a couple of Senate seats in 2026. Then in 2028, Pete Buttigieg beats Ron DeSantis and is elected president, and Democrats pick up a couple more Senate seats. Well now the problem is that Buttigieg needs to appoint a cabinet, but the Senate contains 57 Republicans. And each of them feels, legitimately, that they shouldn’t need to vote “yes” on nominees whose ideas they disagree with. But of course Buttigieg (also legitimately) doesn’t want to appoint people whose ideas he disagrees with. He feels, and Democrats agree, that he won the election fair and square and deserves a team that embraces his ideas. But GOP senators feel, and Republicans agree, that they won their elections fair and square and shouldn’t need to vote to confirm people who they dislike.
You end up with a government that is enmeshed in crisis from Day One with acting officials all over the government, a right-wing judiciary nullifying executive actions, the Buttigieg administration dismissing the obstruction as illegitimate, Republican impeachment efforts falling short of the two-thirds bar, and ultimately the question of who governs the country coming down to whose orders get followed. Now of course more moderate members like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski and maybe even John Cornyn will try to form a Gang of 12 or whatever to resolve the standoff. But by 2028, there just aren’t going to be enough moderates left for a gang-based deal to work. The doom of the country is going to come not from anyone’s authoritarian impulses, but from the fact that the American system requires constant compromise to function on a basic level, and we increasingly have principled political leaders who don’t like to compromise.
Why I started worrying about this less
Even as other people started to worry more about the stability of American democracy during the Trump years, I started worrying less about this particular scenario.
The main reason is that, in retrospect, the stare-downs between Barack Obama and Paul Ryan may have represented a high water mark in terms of grim ideologues running political parties. Trump was crazier and more alarming than either Ryan or Obama in a dozen different ways, but also less rigid on policy substance (see the CARES Act), and while Joe Biden is very different from Trump in a lot of ways, he’s also less rigid than Obama. In fact, so far the Biden years have in some ways been surprisingly non-contentious — no government shutdowns, a debt ceiling drama that was pretty clearly fake all along, and some bipartisan legislation.
Essentially we are now in a period where everyone’s main emotional entry point into politics is various cultural conflicts, while economic issues have gotten a bit less starkly polarized.
Some of those cultural conflicts have hard policy endpoints, but a lot of them are just kind of out there in the ether. On any given day there are a ton of people yelling about Taylor Lorenz or whether Star Trek is too woke or a million other things that aren’t really within the purview of the United States Congress. This has created a bit of a thaw in terms of practical policymaking, so even after the midterms when Biden has to deal with a GOP majority, I think that we will have less of a crisis atmosphere than we had under Obama.
At the same time, though, there is this whole new set of issues related to election subversion and January 6 that does worry me, so I’ve backed away from the Linz thesis a little bit as this balance of concerns has shifted.
Does America need a king?
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking again about the merits of parliamentarism as I’ve learned more about neoreactionary political thought.
Curtis Yarvin, formerly the pseudonymous Mencius Moldbug, is a leading thinker of the “neoreactionary” or “dark enlightenment” movement that began as a weird internet thing. Yarvin has become popular among right-wing Silicon Valley figures, including Peter Thiel, Thiel acolytes like J.D. Vance (who will almost certainly be the next senator from Ohio), and Blake Masters (whose odds aren’t as good but who could be the next senator from Arizona).
One of Yarvin’s pet ideas is the notion that democracy is essentially a sham, and real power is held by a network of civil servants, college professors, and NGO workers.
He thinks we should have a monarchy instead:
Monarchy is both the most common form of public-sector governance in history, and the universal form of private-sector governance (all corporations have CEOs). Any private-sector firm could operate as a republic or other oligarchical form. None do. There are no senates, assemblies or supreme courts in the private sector — let alone anything like the administrative state. Monarchy —ideally accountable monarchy, with a board of directors or some other safety mechanism — just works better.
Last year I read “Why Not Parliamentarism?” by Tiago Ribeiro dos Santos, who is Brazilian and writing not really about the United States of America but about international development. In general, constitutional monarchies (red on the map below) and parliamentary republics (orange) seem to do better than the semi-presidential (yellow) and presidential (blue) systems, and he thinks more of international development should be geared toward convincing countries in Africa and Latin America to go orange.
One of the arguments he makes parallels Yarvin’s point about private sector governance, except that instead of characterizing corporations as monarchies, he describes them as parliaments:
The shareholders/citizens elect a board/parliament.
The board/parliament elects a CEO/prime minister.
The CEO/prime minister persists in office until he voluntarily steps down or loses the confidence of the board/parliament.
No company has the shareholders directly elect a CEO, separately elect a board, and then require concurrence between the two on all decisions with no means of resolving a dispute.
Saying “we should have a monarch just like a corporation does” has more dark enlightenment vibes than “we should have a prime minister just like Ireland does.” But on a practical level, dos Santos’ version of the analogy makes more sense. Where I do agree with Yarvin, though, is that in addition to Linzian-type crisis situations, the Madisonian system tends to disperse power to neither Congress nor the presidency. Consider the FDA, whose performance during the pandemic has been annoyingly sub-par and which has found itself at odds with both the Trump and Biden administrations.
The elected president could try to just run roughshod over FDA decision-making, but that’s considered inappropriate. The appropriate alternative would be to pass legislation directing this or that to happen. But in the American system, if Biden went hat in hand to Congress asking for changes to the FDA, two things would happen. One is some members of Congress would for one reason or another fight for the status quo. But the other is that Republicans just don’t particularly want to give Biden wins. So some members would hold out for much more dramatic reforms than the ones Biden is asking for. Others would demand unrelated policy concessions. Probably nothing would come of it. And it would take time on the legislative calendar away from the all-important assembly-line of judicial nominations. So the agencies just kind of sit there, occasionally meddled with and occasionally ignored, but never really governed in a coherent way.
And I think this is less tyranny of the deep state than simple inertia and drift. The United States does not have a particularly empowered civil service in international terms, but it does have legislative institutions that are very cumbersome. If you go back in time to the year 1900, the difficulty of legislating served the ideological goal of small government. But today the government already does a ton of stuff, and the inability to change anything is not the same as the state having a light footprint.
Reforming local government
To the extent Yarvin’s musings about monarchy have any practical upshot, I think it’s going to mostly manifest in an effort to significantly weaken civil service job protections at the federal level. That will probably make federal agencies a bit less competent and effective without actually addressing the structural weakness of American high-level governance.
Turning the country into a parliamentary republic, by contrast, would probably be a good idea, but there’s no way to go from here to there.
Where I do think these insights are practical, though, is in considering America’s incredibly convoluted local government structures. It’s pretty normal for a town or city to have an elected government that is itself subordinated to a county government which in turn is subordinated to a state government. The city government sometimes replicates the Madisonian structure of a mayor “checked” by a city council, and the state government always does. Then the state government is also bicameral (unless you live in Nebraska). And there tends to be a separate school board. The District Attorney is elected separately from the city or county government. The state probably has several statewide elected officials who aren’t the governor.
The actual lines of responsibility are incredibly confusing, the various officials like to point the finger and shift blame to each other, nobody has any idea who the different people are or what they stand for, and absolutely anything that anyone tries to do initiates many rounds of lawsuits. I think it really is true that this madcap festival of voting serves less to generate “democracy” in the sense of popular control over governance than to simply obscure what is actually happening and who (if anyone) is in charge. The skein of local democracy turns out to mostly be a series of low-turnout, low-salience elections that mask an underlying reality of governance by opaque coalitions of insider stakeholders — contractors, cops, bureaucrats, and psychos who have the time to show up to community meetings.
I’d fix this not by abandoning democracy or appointing a king, but by trying to concentrate power in the hands of a dramatically smaller number of elected officials who would be well-known to the public and empowered to make decisions.
On the knife’s edge
To sum this all up in an ambivalent way, one reason I am a bit less alarmist about the MAGA turn in the GOP than many liberals is that I was much more alarmed about the pre-Trump trajectory of American politics.
The newer breed of Republicans actually has (some) more reasonable views on (some) issues, and there are elements of Yarvin’s critique of American politics that make sense. Lina Khan got a bunch of Republican votes for her FTC nomination because there is some real left-right overlap on rethinking anti-trust issues. I find the Trump-Biden consensus on trade policy to be kind of misguided, but the fact that it exists is another example of an issue depolarizing. There are actually a lot of common elements in the complaints of left- and right-wing intellectuals about the ossification of American institutions. Policymaking is not a zero-sum enterprise, so it is very possible to come together to do specific things that both conservatives and liberals like, even while continuing to vigorously disagree about other things.
The problem is this MAGA turn has also come with elements that take a view of political conflict that is more zero-sum than ever. That includes Trump’s self-serving election fraud nonsense, the chaos and violence of January 6, and ongoing efforts to put state legislatures in a position to steal a presidential election.
But even more than that, I worry about the high-level intellectual rationalizations. Vance and Masters aren’t going to try to install a monarchy in the United States. But if you convince yourself that the actually existing American democracy is already a sham and real power is wielded by a tyrannical nexus of the media, academia, and the civil service, then that offers a rationale for undercutting democracy. This ultimately leads us back around to the Linzian crisis.
After all, the sane reaction would be to say that if there’s a newly elected Democratic president but Senate bias leaves the GOP with a majority in the upper house, they should act with some deference to the president’s democratic legitimacy and confirm normal cabinet picks. But would they act in a sane way in that situation? Pressure to be obstructionist would be intense under any circumstance. And the idea that American institutions are in need of radical destruction rather than reform licenses extreme behavior and could easily put us on the path to collapse.