Sunday, October 25, 2020

Kevin Drum Says American Democracy is Fine

Kevin Drum is a progressive activist of long-standing. But, he says, he parts company with many contemporaries who think American Democracy is imperiled by Republican advantages in the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court. (Long argument to this effect in the Times). Drum:

Of course, if democracy really is under threat then it’s hardly toxic to point this out and fight it. But is it? I understand that mine is an unpopular view these days among progressives, but of course it’s not. America has had gerrymandering, the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court since the beginning, and liberals rarely worried that they were an existential threat to democracy. Democrats controlled Congress for nearly 50 straight years after World War II and liberals didn’t think it was a threat to democracy. The Warren Court upended constitutional law in the ’60s and liberals didn’t think it was a threat to democracy. The Senate has only barely changed for over a hundred years, and Democrats haven’t historically had any special problem controlling it for a fair share of the time. Just recently, Democrats passed Obamacare even though it was unanimously opposed by Republicans and only barely eked out majority support from the public. Liberals didn’t consider this a threat to democracy. And in 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage? No threat to democracy there.

Democracy in practice is never a perfect representation of majority rule. Every democratic country has institutions that get in the way of perfect representation, and this is often considered a good thing: the Senate as a counterweight to the passions of the House, for example, or the Supreme Court as the guarantor of the rights of the minority vs. the will of the majority. Rather, the foundation of democracy is that the people mostly get what they want most of the time. And in America they do, even if, like every country, we’re imperfect on this score, especially if you’re poor or non-white.

Neither of the two major parties has recently exercised total control over our national agenda, but it’s safe to say that over the past 50 years or so, Democrats have mostly won the culture war while Republicans have won the economic war. The reason, like it or not, is that this is basically what the American public wants. Liberals have made their case for gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and so forth, and Americans have hopped on board. Conservatives have made the case for tax cuts and business friendly policies, and Americans have largely hopped on board with that too.

None of this has been the result of gerrymandering or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the Electoral College except at the margins. It’s been almost entirely the result of parties persuading the American public to support their views. Both tax cuts and the ADA were popular. Both the Iraq War and gay marriage were popular. Both immigration restrictions and national health care are, currently, somewhat popular. But only somewhat. That’s why we don’t yet have either one. To put it simply, democracy is alive and well in the United States, and the institutional exceptions are relatively mild and of long standing.
This is where I am, too: if American is screwed up, that's mostly because Americans are screwed up. The government largely reflects the people. Neither progressives nor conservatives can achieve much of what they want, because American voters don't support it. I think by far the biggest obstacle to the will of the American people is not the Senate or the Electoral College but the two-party system, which insures that some issues with a lot of support can't be enacted and turns others into partisan footballs.

Of course, if you think our situation is and always has been intolerable, then you don't care that our problems are old problems. But I still say that it is not the Senate or the Electoral College that blocks the progressive agenda, but the fact that most Americans don't support it.


G. Verloren said...


"But I still say that it is not the Senate or the Electoral College that blocks the progressive agenda, but the fact that most Americans don't support it."

Weren't you saying not that long ago that you thought most Americans were apolitical?

I suppose in a sense that would qualify as "not supporting" a progressive agenda, but only because they don't support any agenda - except they're also not opposing any agenda, so presumably they aren't relevant?

By "most Americans" do you in fact merely mean "most Americans who vote"? Because that seems like a more reasonable argument to make for why a more progressive agenda doesn't manage to win out.

But then, you had that post recently talking about how the Republican Party is split pretty evenly, with nearly half of them seeming to favor some pretty progressive stances on things you might expect them not to. If nearly half of the anti-progressive party are actually somewhat progressive, shouldn't that mean that the majority of people across both parties are a least moderately progressive?

As for the health of our democracy, are you ignoring things like the open corruption of the sitting president? A man who any respectable lawyer can tell you is a criminal, but who remains in office because the Republican controlled Senate chose to ignore his crimes?

A man who has abused the powers of his office to profit himself and to remove his political opponents from office? A man who has ties to foreign powers that we know are working to undermine our democracy, even now?

A man who came into power despite losing the popular election, because of the whims of wholly anonymous appointed electors who ostensibly have a duty to vote a certain way as determined by the laws of their states (an anti-democratic problem in itself), but who in reality face no oversight and suffer no consequences for voting however they please?

You seem to be arguing that our Democracy is healthy on the grounds that we're just getting what people voted for. But 1) we're actually not, and 2) even if we were, a democracy's health is dependent on the populace being sufficiently well informed and voting responsibly.

G. Verloren said...


the system may be working "as intended", but if it's being used in unhealthy ways, for unhealthy reasons, then our Democracy itself is unhealthy and at risk. If people are voting for selfish, emotional, irrational reasons, that's a bad sign. If voter turnout is perennially low, that's a bad sign. If disinformation campaigns are rampant, obvious voter suppression tactics are enacted freely, and the duties of the offices of the president and members of congress are being ignored without consequences, that's a bad sign.

Weimar Germany had a democracy that was "working as intended" too, right up until "the majority of Germans" (who bothered to vote) elected Hitler, who began to legally dismantle the democratic machinery of the state.

The Romans had a democracy that was "working as intended" as well, right up until Julius Caesar - lawfully appointed consul and populist strongman, notorious for bribery, corrupt dealings, and defying the rule of law without consequences - decided to cross the Rubicon and seize power for himself.

There were countless Germans and Romans who felt exactly as you do - that everything was fine, that the Democratic system clearly was working as it was supposed to, even some people didn't like the results, that "the majority of people" didn't support changing the status quo, and that the people who were concerned were just being hysterical and alarmist.

Democracies rarely fall from outside conquest, or because the system of bureaucracy somehow fails. They fall from the inside, because the system continues to operate "as usual", but to the detriment of the society that operates it. Democracies are usually corrupted and exploited by unscrupulous people into undermining themselves.

And literally the only defense against that possibility is the vigilance and concern you seem to dismiss as alarmist hysteria.

G. Verloren said...

typo - "even if some people didn't like the results"