The United States is in the midst of an existential and political crisis. Understanding it calls for investigating anti-democratic choices made when the nation was in its infancy. America
never had a great political thinker on the level of Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, or Hegel. In fact, its theory of governance can probably be boiled down to about 30 pages worth of newspaper articles compiled in The Federalist Papers (1788). Clear, brief, and to the point, this collection was authored by three of America's "founding fathers:" James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. The Federalist Papers were part of what was a raging debate over whether to ratify the new Constitution. Everyday people were able to read and discuss themand they did. Back then, indeed, political theory was political. The most famous of these "papers" -- #10, #51, and #78still reverberate with all students of American politics. They speak to what is happening now.
The founding fathers were authentic, intellectual, and political revolutionaries who turned the logic of governance upside down. No less than Machiavelli or Hobbes, admittedly, these politicians believed that men were self-interested and egoistic. Madison was clear: if men were angels there would be no need for government. But what kind of government? Europeans thought that hierarchical and centralized states were necessary to keep the masses in line. America's founding fathers, however, viewed the matter differently. They envisioned a decentralized government with checks and balances. Combining it with explicitly anti-democratic institutions, they believed, it would produce the same result, while protecting individual liberty.
Madison, Jay, and Hamilton were propertied bourgeois and landowners, children of the Enlightenment, and nobody's fools. Their views on personal liberty, representative democracy, and an independent judiciary set the stage for genuine advances in democratic governance. But they were not romantic idealists. These goals were all pursued with an eye on their own interests, and within "prudent" limits. As becomes evident in the magisterial cycle of American historical novels by Gore Vidal, which begins with Burr (1973), these founding fathers, above all, feared the "great beast," the poor and the property-less, as much as any European aristocrat. They allowed for slavery in order to gain support for the Constitution from Southern states. African and Native Americans could not vote; women could not vote; those without property could not vote; and everyone had to be 21. Individual states were left to decide the details, which later led to poll taxes, literacy tests, various obstacles in order to cast ballots, and flat-out coercion, especially in the South following the Civil War and Reconstruction, and well into the 1960s. Today, indeed, eighteen states have already passed legislation with the same intent under pressure from a resurgent white supremacist constituency, and with solid support from the Republican Party.
Even severe voting restrictions, however, did not make elites feel secure. They wanted more protection, and they got it: governors and senators were indirectly elected by state assemblies; an electoral college was erected that would indirectly determine the president; and Supreme Court justices, nominated by the president and ratified by the Senate, would sit on the bench for life. Some changes were made: governors and senators are now elected directly by popular vote, and members of the electoral college now vote in accordance with their state's popular vote. In spite of these changes, however, the original hindrances to democracy remain a serious matter. This became evident when unforeseen circumstances enabled President Donald Trump, supported by a Republican majority in the Senate, to confirm three highly conservative justices for the Supreme Court, who probably will pose obstacles to all progressive legislation for decades to come.
The Federalist Papers split the exercise of national sovereignty between the congress, the judiciary, and the presidency (as well as the federal government and the states). With each institution seeking to expand its turf at the expense of the others, coupled with overly complex and confused laws, their unique domains of control are actually quite fluid. Congress is supposedly in control of the budget, for example, yet the president and the senate can both intercede. Institutional accountability also suffers, which became apparent in the embarrassing presentation of the Muller Report, which dealt with Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Trump's two impeachment hearings, and the seemingly endless inquiry into the January 6th insurrection.
But the most important problem involves elections. Their framework was provided by The Federalist Papers. Organized through single member districts, where the "winner takes all," the electoral process is the real source of "American exceptionalism." Should a candidate garner 51% of the popular vote, for example, it is then quite plausible that 49% of the district's citizens will find themselves completely disempowered. Unlike European forms of proportional representation, where 49% of the vote won by a national party will result in 49% of the seats in parliament, the American system is black and white. The power of political parties is reducible to the number of individual candidates who emerge triumphant in each district or state. It is a matter of win or loseeverything. This electoral structure harbors disincentives for the birth of third parties for the very simple reason that they cannot grow over time, say, from 5% to 10% to 20% etc. It's always now or never - all or nothing.
The only way for citizens not to "waste" their votes is to choose between the "lesser of the two evils," namely, Democrats and Republicans. In spite of the current polarized political atmosphere, the founding fathers surely intuited that single-member winner-take-all districts would also produce disincentives for ideological parties (i.e. communist, socialist, fascist) since candidates will seek support from a variety of different and often mutually exclusive interests, or what the founding fathers called "factions." Politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties are thus pressured by the system to "balance" the concerns of, say, unions, capital, environmentalists, and other factions, in a "pragmatic" agenda that usually lacks any ideological consistency whatsoever. These factions have different degrees of power, and it is far easier for elites to organize a faction than others, such as immigrants, whose interests remain under-represented or ignored entirely. That this impacts the character of a given coalition of factions, however, was never relevant for the founding fathers.
Compromise of principle and interest is the aim of their electoral framework, which basically extends from the local to the highest (presidential) level. A particularly grotesque attempt to grapple with the structure of American elections was the unprincipled "triangulation" strategy of President Bill Clinton, which sought to place the Democratic Party ever so slightly to the left of Republicans on any given issue; it sounds good, but the ultimate result was a supposedly progressive president's promising "to end welfare as we know it." Triangulation was also undertaken by Senator Al Gore (D-Tennessee) in his unsuccessful presidential contest with Governor George W. Bush in 2000, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's run against Donald Trump in 2016. Both won the popular vote, Hillary Clinton by more than 3 million ballots, but miscalculated with regard to the impact of the electoral college. Both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were defeated.
Genuinely progressive reformers have always had a hard time dealing with these various electoral constraints on democracy. Aware of events in Ancient Greece, and the Roman Republic, the federalists worried about the property-less majority electing a people's tribune and the prospect of this majority forcing taxes on the rich. They purposely made it difficult to implement national policies. There is hardly a single major piece of welfare legislation from social security to healthcare in which the United States has historically taken the lead. The introduction of such legislation usually lags 50 years behind countries with socialist parties, parliamentary regimes, and national unions. Different candidates in the United States swing a bit to the left or to the right depending upon the coalitions that they form. Even though the last 50 years has seen the ideological mainstream shifting to the right, which is barely recognized by the average voter, the standard claim is that power in America rests on what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the vital center."
Privileging the power of local factions as against national political parties further complicates the labyrinthine structure of American institutions. Professional politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties seek to keep these factional interests in the non-governmental realm of civil society where much of the pre-electoral bargaining takes place. But that doesn't always work. When an ideological vacuum sucks the life out of a political party, and its identifiable policies have palpably failed, it is the more extreme factions that can become dominant. Such was the case with the racist "Dixiecrats" and white councils" in the South that had a huge impact on national parties, and their policies, during the decades after World War II. It was the same with the Tea Party, which began its assault on the vapid "center" occupied by supporters of President George W. Bush. Currently, it is the same with the neo-fascist Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the conspiracy fetishists of Q-Anon, whose local activities have been inspired and supported by President Trump.
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