Pondering National Governance

This is a recent article published in the NY Times. To make any sense of our answers to this question requires some ideological and historical clarity. [Blog comments]

Is the United States Too Big to Govern?

By Neil Gross

May 11, 2018

Last month the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that Americans are losing faith in their system of government. Only one-fifth of adults surveyed believe democracy is working “very well” in the United States, while two-thirds say “significant changes” are needed to governmental “design and structure.” [Because nobody really knows what these words mean, or they don’t agree among the many meanings, polling results are questionable indicators.]

The 2016 election is one explanation for these findings. Something is not right in a country where Donald Trump is able to win the presidency. [Well, that’s a selective value judgment – one could easily substitute in the names Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The point of a democratic society is that the people get to make those decisions and the people agree to abide by them or revolt. Are the people revolting against themselves or against their political representatives?]  

But here’s another possibility: What if trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means? With a population of more than 325 million and an enormously complex society, perhaps this country has passed a point where — no matter whom we elect — it risks becoming permanently dissatisfied with legislative and governmental performance. [There’s an implicit assumption here that the original intent of the founders is that some central authority should “govern” the affairs of the population and manage the national interest (“traditional means”?). This is probably half true in that a national interest must be represented as the sum of its many parts. We have a Federal government. What was not intended was an all-powerful Federal government.]

Political thinkers, worried about the problem of size, have long advocated small republics. Plato and Aristotle admired the city-state because they thought reason and virtue could prevail only when a polis was small enough that citizens could be acquaintances. Montesquieu, the 18th-century French political philosopher, picked up where the ancient Greeks left off, arguing for the benefits of small territories. “In a large republic,” he wrote, “the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations,” whereas in a smaller one the common good “is more strongly felt, better known, and closer to each citizen.” [I suspect Dunbar’s number is at work here.]

The framers of the United States Constitution were keenly aware of these arguments. As the political scientists Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte noted in their 1973 book, “Size and Democracy,” the framers embraced federalism partly because they thought that states were closer in scale to the classical ideal. Ultimately, however, a counterargument advanced by James Madison won the day: Larger republics better protected democracy, he claimed, because their natural political diversity made it difficult for any supersized faction to form and dominate. [With Federalism and the separation of powers and overlapping jurisdictions, I think the founders split the difference here.]

Two and a half centuries later, the accumulated social science suggests that Madison’s optimism was misplaced. Smaller, it seems, is better. [This is a false and impossible choice. When complex networks grow too large, they break-up into smaller, more manageable pieces, but these smaller entities are vulnerable to competitive pressures. This is true in industrial organization, economic and financial markets, and digital and social networks. It also applies to social choice and governance. The founders’ idea was to create a coordinated network of states, counties, and municipalities to manage affairs at the appropriate jurisdictional level. National issues are the sole responsibility of a Federal government balanced by parochial interests. This would secure the strongest union to guarantee citizens’ rights and freedoms. As that task grows in complexity, the need for decentralization and coordination reasserts itself.] 

There are clear economic and military advantages to being a large country. But when it comes to democracy, the benefits of largeness — defined by population or geographic area — are hard to find. Examining data on the world’s nations from the 19th century until today, the political scientists John Gerring and Wouter Veenendaal recently discovered that although size is correlated with electoral competition (in line with the Madisonian argument), there is no association between size and many other standard measures of democratic functioning, such as limits on executive power or the provision of human rights. [Another question raised here is what exactly we mean by democracy. Strictly democracy means government by the people, but popular democracy is a narrow offshoot of that definition. IT also begs the question of what a government by the people is trying to accomplish. Our founders made it clear they thought it was life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Note: the pursuit of happiness, not its guarantee.]

In fact, large nations turn out to have what the political scientist Pippa Norris has called “democratic deficits”: They don’t fully satisfy their citizens’ demands for democracy. [Again, what is that demand? Is it coherent?] For one thing, citizens in large nations are generally less involved in politics and feel they have less of a voice. [Are they unable to secure life, liberty and pursue happiness or do they just not like the results?] Voter turnout is lower. [Low voter turnout could mean that voters are happy with the status quo, or don’t believe voting matters to their individual fates.] According to the political scientist Karen Remmer, smaller-scale political entities encourage voting in ways large ones can’t by “creating a sense of community” and “enforcing norms of citizenship responsibility.” [Perhaps because they enjoy more intrinsic rewards to participation. This would suggest more localized control over politics.] In addition, small countries promote political involvement by leaning heavily on forms of direct democracy, like referendums or citizen assemblies. [This is a feature of scale. Direct democracy on a large scale can empower the tyranny of the popular majority because the effects are so far removed from that majority.]

A second problem is political responsiveness: The policies of large nations can be slow to change, even if change is needed and desired. In a book published last year, the sociologists John Campbell and John Hall compared the reactions to the 2007-2008 financial crisis in Denmark, Ireland, and Switzerland. These three small countries didn’t cause the crisis; a homegrown Irish housing bubble notwithstanding, the shock wave they dealt with came from America. But though the countries were economically vulnerable, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hall observed, this vulnerability fostered unexpected resilience and creativity, generating in each nation “a sense of solidarity or ‘we-ness’” that brought together politicians, regulators, and bankers eager to do whatever was necessary to calm markets. [Again, a sense of “we-ness” is one of scale. Cultural homogeneity helps.] 

With the United States lacking the same sense of shared fate and vulnerability, American policymakers could organize only a tepid response, which helps explain why the recovery here was so slow. This theory sheds light as well on developments in environmental and social welfare policy, where it is increasingly common to find a complacent America lagging behind its smaller, more innovative peers. [Complexity plus centralization leads to sclerosis, which is why centralizing authority in a large, diverse, pluralist society make be unworkable.] 

Finally, largeness can take a toll on citizen trust. The presence of a wide variety of social groups and cultures is the primary reason for this. Nearly all scholars who study country size recognize, as Madison did, that large nations are more socially heterogeneous, whether because they represent an amalgamation of different regions, each with its own ethnolinguistic, religious or cultural heritage; or because their economic vitality encourages immigration; or because population size and geographic spread promote the growth of distinctive subcultures; or because they have more differentiated class structures. [Agreed, which is why encouraging a large diverse population of the virtues of multiculturalism may actually be a detriment. I believe the original idea, or at least the one that prevailed in past influxes of cultural groups, was the melting pot of gradual, voluntary assimilation.]

It isn’t inevitable that a large amount of social variation would undermine trust. Well-governed societies like Canada address the issue by stitching diversity and multiculturalism into their national identities. Yet in the absence of cultural and institutional supports, heterogeneity and trust are frequently in tension, as different ways of life give rise to suspicion and animosity. Without at least a veneer of trust among diverse social groups, politics spirals downward. [This characterization of Canada seems counter-intuitive. Stitching ethnic diversity and multiculturalism into a national identity means that national identity must be based not on ethnicity, race, or diverse cultures but in a national identity based on universal principles and social contracts. In other words, on something called patriotism and fealty to the larger community, subsuming ethnic, racial, and cultural differences.]

The challenges of American largeness are here to stay. The task now is for individuals, civic organizations and institutions to commit themselves to building stronger communities and a renewed sense of shared responsibility and trust among different groups. Within the constraints of our nation’s size, we can create conditions for as much democracy as possible. [So, we converge on the idea that it is inevitable we decentralize power and assume the responsibility of self-governance? What then is the real political conflict of interest?]

Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College.

Advertisements