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.


Constitutional Crisis?

The following was a provocative essay published in the NYTimes. Since it touches on the nexus of economics and politics, I deemed it an appropriate topic for this blog.

Our Constitution was not built for a country with so much wealth concentrated at the very top nor for the threats that invariably accompany it: oligarchs and populist demagogues.

No. It wasn’t.

But we can never seem to anchor our attention on the true determinants of economic power. The distribution of wealth is tilted toward those who control society’s primary productive resources. In feudal and agrarian societies it is land; in industrial and post industrial societies it is energy and finance capital; in the information society it is information data and finance capital.

The imperative for a liberal democracy is to democratize land, to democratize finance, and, especially in the 21st century, to democratize big data. There are trade-offs implied (especially the necessary democratization of investment risk), but the objective must be liberty and justice, not national wealth, because sustainable wealth is only derived from liberty and justice.

Aside from economic inequality there is a related but different plague upon the body politic these days. That is the anti-democratic ideology of identity politics and multiculturalism. These ideologies probably arose as a response to the frustration of economic inequality and power that demanded a division into victims and victimizers. The victimizers, of course, were corporate, white, and male, while the victims were all other identity groups not so defined: ethnic and racial minorities, women, LBGTs, etc.

But a constitution based on compromise through participation cannot possibly manage identity groups based on biology and genetics.  There is no compromising our biological identity, there are only zero-sum battles with winners and losers. Thus, the rule of the victimizers must be torn down, though it cannot end there. Coalitions of identity groups do not hold together after the common enemy has been vanquished, so they turn on each other until we see the complete Balkanization of democratic polities.

We will need to solve both these problems – economic inequality and identity Balkanization – in order for our democracy to restore itself and guarantee liberty and justice for all. Unfortunately this professor, and most of our political leaders in the oligarchy, don’t really have any promising ideas about how to go about that.

There are other things the Constitution wasn’t written for, of course. The founders didn’t foresee America becoming a global superpower. They didn’t plan for the internet or nuclear weapons. And they certainly couldn’t have imagined a former reality television star president. Commentators wring their hands over all of these transformations — though these days, they tend to focus on whether this country’s founding document can survive the current president.

But there is a different, and far more stubborn, risk that our country faces — and which, arguably, led to the TV star turned president in the first place. Our Constitution was not built for a country with so much wealth concentrated at the very top nor for the threats that invariably accompany it: oligarchs and populist demagogues.

From the ancient Greeks to the American founders, statesmen and political philosophers were obsessed with the problem of economic inequality. Unequal societies were subject to constant strife — even revolution. The rich would tyrannize the poor, and the poor would revolt against the rich.

The solution was to build economic class right into the structure of government. In England, for example, the structure of government balanced lords and commoners. In ancient Rome, there was the patrician Senate for the wealthy, and the Tribune of the Plebeians for everyone else. We can think of these as class-warfare constitutions: Each class has a share in governing, and a check on the other. Those checks prevent oligarchy on the one hand and a tyranny founded on populist demagogy on the other.

What is surprising about the design of our Constitution is that it isn’t a class warfare constitution. Our Constitution doesn’t mandate that only the wealthy can become senators, and we don’t have a tribune of the plebs. Our founding charter doesn’t have structural checks and balances between economic classes: not between rich and poor, and certainly not between corporate interests and ordinary workers. This was a radical change in the history of constitutional government.

And it wasn’t an oversight. The founding generation knew how to write class-warfare constitutions — they even debated such proposals during the summer of 1787. But they ultimately chose a framework for government that didn’t pit class against class. Part of the reason was practical. James Madison’s notes from the secret debates at the Philadelphia Convention show that the delegates had a hard time agreeing on how they would design such a class-based system. But part of the reason was political: They knew the American people wouldn’t agree to that kind of government.

At the time, many Americans believed the new nation would not be afflicted by the problems that accompanied economic inequality because there simply wasn’t much inequality within the political community of white men. Today we tend to emphasize how undemocratic the founding era was when judged by our values — its exclusion of women, enslavement of African-Americans, violence against Native Americans. But in doing so, we risk missing something important: Many in the founding generation believed America was exceptional because of the extraordinary degree of economic equality within the political community as they defined it.

Unlike Europe, America wasn’t bogged down by the legacy of feudalism, nor did it have a hereditary aristocracy. Noah Webster, best known for his dictionary, commented that there were “small inequalities of property,” a fact that distinguished America from Europe and the rest of the world. Equality of property, he believed, was crucial for sustaining a republic. During the Constitutional Convention, South Carolinan Charles Pinckney said America had “a greater equality than is to be found among the people of any other country.” As long as the new nation could expand west, he thought, it would be possible to have a citizenry of independent yeoman farmers. In a community with economic equality, there was simply no need for constitutional structures to manage the clash between the wealthy and everyone else.

The problem, of course, is that economic inequality has been on the rise for at least the last generation. In 1976 the richest 1 percent of Americans took home about 8.5 percent of our national income. Today they take home more than 20 percent. In major sectors of the economy — banking, airlines, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications — economic power is increasingly concentrated in a small number of companies. [Don’t we need to discuss why before we embark on solutions?]

While much of the debate has been on the moral or economic consequences of economic inequality, the more fundamental problem is that our constitutional system might not survive in an unequal economy. Campaign contributions, lobbying, the revolving door of industry insiders working in government, interest group influence over regulators and even think tanks — all of these features of our current political system skew policy making to favor the wealthy and entrenched economic interests. “The rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest,” Gouverneur Morris observed in 1787. “They always did. They always will.” An oligarchy — not a republic — is the inevitable result.

As a republic descends into an oligarchy, the people revolt. Populist revolts are rarely anarchic; they require leadership. [See Trump AND Sanders.] Morris predicted that the rich would take advantage of the people’s “passions” and “make these the instruments for oppressing them.” The future Broadway sensation Alexander Hamilton put it more clearly: “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people: commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Starting more than a century ago, amid the first Gilded Age, Americans confronted rising inequality, rapid industrial change, a communications and transportation revolution and the emergence of monopolies. Populists and progressives responded by pushing for reforms that would tame the great concentrations of wealth and power that were corrupting government.

On the economic side, they invented antitrust laws and public utilities regulation, established an income tax, and fought for minimum wages. On the political side, they passed campaign finance regulations and amended the Constitution so the people would get to elect senators directly. They did these things because they knew that our republican form of government could not survive in an economically unequal society. As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “There can be no real political democracy unless there is something approaching an economic democracy.”

For all its resilience and longevity, our Constitution doesn’t have structural checks built into it to prevent oligarchy or populist demagogues. It was written on the assumption that America would remain relatively equal economically. Even the father of the Constitution understood this. Toward the end of his life, Madison worried that the number of Americans who had only the “bare necessities of life” would one day increase. When it did, he concluded, the institutions and laws of the country would need to be adapted, and that task would require “all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.”

With economic inequality rising and the middle class collapsing, the deep question we must ask today is whether our generation has wise patriots who, like the progressives a century ago, will adapt the institutions and laws of our country — and save our republic.

Ganesh Sitaraman, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, is the author of “The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.”

When Politics is Everything

Usually, this blog focuses on economic and financial policy, but at times we are forced to recognize that politics is deeply intertwined with our economic fates. This is one of those times.

We face a dilemma in American society – a dilemma highlighted once again by the recent Supreme Court decision on Obamacare. Whether one likes it or not, this was a political, not a constitutional, ruling. But how did we end up with a Supreme Court making political judgments? This is part of a trend.

Simply put, the politicization of everything in democratic society—religion, race, sex, ethnicity, war, national defense, abortion, marriage, education, media, economic policy, financial policy, Supreme Court appointments and rulings, etc.—has rendered our democracy incapable of functioning as it was designed. Democracy—meaning ‘rule of the people’—was intended to exercise the will of the people over national policy priorities through three functional branches of government. Objectively, our democracy is designed to make choices and compromises in the best interest of the citizenry. We have a branch of government that makes laws, an executive that executes the laws, and a judiciary that passes judgment on the law based upon a constitution and more than 200 years of legal precedent. There is a strong impression now that this process has broken down, sacrificed to an ideological battle between two warring political parties. We no longer seem to be able to accomplish the simple task of governing ourselves. The point of this post is to examine why. Let’s start with this latest case of the ruling on Obama’s healthcare legislation.

As we digest the various interpretations of the Roberts decision, we begin to see that Roberts found himself in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” political dilemma. Faced with a highly contentious policy and a growing perception of the politicization of court rulings, Roberts sought to de-politicize the SCOTUS by sending this policy issue back to the peoples’ legislature under the redress of a national election in four months. But in so doing, Roberts was forced to make his ultimate legal judgment based on politics alone. This irony can only further politicize SCOTUS decisions and appointments. This is why Senate battles over high court appointments have become so contentious and nasty. And also why Roberts, his fellow justices, and their judgments have become the unwilling symbols of a failed democracy. This is apparent whether one agrees or disagrees with the rulings on Bush v. Gore, Citizens United, or Obamacare.

A democratic society that does not buy into the electoral and legislative outcomes of the two branches of government that somewhat reflect the will of the people, finds itself battling over the control of nine unelected judges making constitutional decisions that have degenerated into unholy politics. No wonder Asians with autocratic governments see little to admire in American-style democracy. (Of course, these nations are under the illusion that in the great battle between freedom and state control, they are immune and will reap only the benefits of economic efficiency. Of course, eventually they will find out they are wrong.)

Roberts’s no-win situation is the inevitable result of a modern society that has sought to politicize every aspect of daily life. In America the battle lines were drawn between an inherently conservative polity and a progressive state-driven agenda. We can trace these conflicts through the history of the 50s and each subsequent decade right up to today. The skirmishes began by politicizing race, sex, and religion by means of the judicial system, and continued to politicize war, national security and defense. Then our politics infected reproduction, education, taxes, marriage and most recently, financial policy. The worse transgression has been the politicization of media, the necessary arbiter of objective information in a free society. What’s going on here?

The desire to win the war of politics by any means necessary causes the losers to constantly engage on new battlefields. When stymied by the inability to prevail through electoral and legislative politics at the national level, the losers have turned to an unelected SCOTUS as a last redoubt. But a politicized SCOTUS corrupts the last institutional bulwark defending the very constitutional freedoms for which it was intended. Sadly, Roberts’s attempt to diffuse our contentious politics is doomed to fail.

Where do we go from here? Reversing course will require a deep self-reflection on the part of citizens and voters over political priorities and what makes life worth living. It must come from ground up as opposed to top down political leadership. The choice is probably best defined as between the real risks of freedom vs. the frequent delusion of security. Let’s hope we can get there sooner than later.