Democracy: A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick

The Wikipedia entry on the author begins this way: “Sir Bernard Rowland Crick [1929 – 2008] was a British political theorist and democratic socialist whose views can be summarized as ‘politics is ethics done in public’. He sought to arrive at a ‘politics of action’, as opposed to a ‘politics of thought’ or of ideology”.

This explains why his introduction to democracy often deals with the responsibilities of citizenship. He traces the history of democracy from ancient Athens, when propertied men were expected to vote but also periodically hold public office, all the way to his leadership of a committee charged with improving “education for citizenship” in British schools, when many more of us qualify as citizens but we just want the government to leave us alone.

I’m having trouble summarizing this short book, so I’ll quote the publisher’s synopsis:

This book is a short account of the history of the doctrine, practices and institutions of democracy, from ancient Greece and Rome, through the American, French and Russian revolutions, and its varieties and conditions in the modern world.

Crick discusses the use of the term “democratic” by authoritarian governments, Alexis de Toqueville’s study of democracy in 19th century America, the meaning of “populism” and how majority rule doesn’t guarantee good government. Overall, it’s a nice little book that is best summarized by the author when he concludes that “all discussions of democracy are inconclusive and never-ending” [116].

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Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller

The question in the title implies that democracy hardly ever works as it’s supposed to. That is one of the author’s conclusions. Another is that, even though the trend toward more democracy in the world has reversed in recent years, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.

The book begins with chapters on the ups and downs of Athenian democracy, the French Revolution, and America between the revolution and the Civil War. Next there are two chapters that summarize developments in Europe, America and Russia, including the Chartist working class movement in Britain; the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution. Woodrow Wilson’s academic writings on government and his efforts to make the world “safe for democracy” receive special attention, as do public opinion polls and the practitioners of “public relations”. The final chapter deals with recent events, beginning with the election of our current president and the mass demonstrations that immediately followed his inauguration. It concludes with an examination of “the advance and retreat of democracy worldwide”.

Throughout the book, Miller analyzes the tension between democratic ideals and the reality of governing a population that couldn’t fit into a traditional New England meeting house. How should the “will of the people” be discovered? How much leeway should the people’s representatives and other government officials have, since the voters cannot and should not make every decision? Miller also points out that there is much more to democracy than simply counting votes. A free press is necessary, for example. So is the right to a decent education. Given the complexity of the modern world, the absurdly unequal distribution of wealth, the amount of secrecy governments practice, and the manipulation and disinformation we are all subjected to, nobody should be surprised that democracy often seems inadequate to the role it’s supposed to perform.

I’ll finish with two quotations from the book that are especially relevant to our current situation.

In 2004, the political scientist Samuel Huntington “analyzed what he took to be the long-term implications of demographic and cultural trends on America’s sense of national identity”. He argued that “one very plausible reaction” to the declining “hold of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men on the levers of political power” would be:

the emergence of exclusivist sociopolitical movements composed largely but not only of white males, protesting and attempting to stop or reverse these changes and what they believe, accurately or not, to be the diminution of their social and economic status, their loss of jobs to immigrants and foreign countries, the perversion of their culture, the displacement of their language, and the erosion or even evaporation of the historical identity of their country. Such movements would be both racially and culturally inspired and could be anti-Hispanic, anti-black and anti-immigration. They would be the heir to the many comparable exclusivist racial and anti-foreign movements that helped define American identity in the past [and] have enough in common to be brought together under the label “white nativism” [224-225].

The second quotation is from Václav Havel, the Czech dissident and eventual president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, writing in 1991:

“I am convinced,” Havel remarked, “that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is … humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural. The best laws and best-conceived democratic mechanisms will not in themselves guarantee legality or freedom or human rights — anything, in short, for which they were intended — if they are not underpinned by certain human and social values”. And here Havel is insistent: “I feel that the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence” [243].

Or a substantial minority of white nativists could use supposedly democratic procedures to elect a person who never places common interests above his own and is blatantly contemptuous of democracy and the rule of law.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The authors are professors of government at Harvard. Their thesis is that democracies don’t usually die because of coups or violent revolutions. They usually die when leaders take advantage of their nation’s established procedures to give themselves more and more power. For example, a political party will pass laws that make it so easy for them to win elections that they no longer face meaningful competition, or a ruler will assume temporary emergency powers because of a crisis but never give up those powers.

How Democracies Die shows how easy it can be to make the transition from democracy to authoritarianism. All budding authoritarians need to do is break the unwritten rules, the norms of behavior, that make a democracy work. If enough unwritten rules are broken, a democratic government will no longer function. Anti-democratic laws will be passed, ideologues and cronies will be put in positions of power, opponents will be jailed or exiled. Democracies can disappear either gradually or quickly. The authors provide examples from around the world.

They also call special attention to the behavior of the Republican Party in the last twenty-five years. Leaders like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Mitch McConnell and our current president have all broken rules without necessarily doing anything illegal. The result has been an accumulation of power inconsistent with majority rule.

When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted — mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. Treating rivals as legitimate contenders for power and underutilizing one’s institutional prerogatives in the spirit of fair play are not written in the American Constitution. Yet without them, our constitutional checks and balances will not operate as we expect them to [212].

The authors foresee three possible outcomes of our current political crisis. The most optimistic is that there will be a rebirth of democracy in reaction to the Trump presidency. The Democratic Party will be energized, the Republican Party will become less extreme, and “the Trump interlude [will] be taught in schools, recounted in films, and recited in historical works as an era of tragic mistakes where catastrophe was avoided and American democracy saved” [206].

The least optimistic is that America’s government will become increasingly authoritarian, possibly in response to a national security crisis. They believe this “nightmare scenario” isn’t likely, but it isn’t inconceivable either: “It is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities [in our case, white Americans who call themselves Christians] gave up their dominant status without a fight” [208]. Resistance to creeping right-wing authoritarianism could lead to “escalating confrontation and even violent conflict”, which would bring more repression in the name of “law and order” [207-208].

They consider the third alternative the most likely:

… polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare — in other words, democracy without solid guardrails… When partisan rivals become enemies, political competition descends into warfare, and our institutions turn into weapons. The result is a system hovering constantly on the brink of crisis [208-212].

In order to avoid this outcome, the authors believe the Republican Party needs to be “reformed, if not refounded outright”. It must “marginalize extremist elements”; “build a more diverse electoral constituency”; “find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism”; and “free itself from the clutches of outside donors [like the Koch brothers] and right-wing media” [223]. They also believe that it would be counterproductive for Democrats to fight fire with fire, to behave as badly as Republicans have.

I think the only way the Republican Party will be reformed or replaced is if the rest of us become so fed up that the Republicans suffer devastating electoral losses, and that the Democrats use their improved position to address urgent issues, in particular, rising inequality. That might encourage “conservatives” to start behaving like conservatives again, instead of like radicals. America might then have a normal center-right political party again. Stranger things have happened.

Democracy in Chains

Publishers and book critics sometimes say a particular book is one that every American, or every thinking American, or every American who cares about such and such, should read. I’m reading one of them now. If you want to understand U.S. politics, you should read Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

MacClean explains how a small group of libertarian and conservative academics began a movement in the 1950s that eventually led to the rightward shift in American politics. So many on the right are so deeply committed to low taxes, privatization, deregulation and making it hard (for some people) to vote because, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes, they are “the slaves of some defunct  economist[s] … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler[s] of a few years back”.

This radical right-wing agenda favors property over democracy. They hate the idea that a majority of voters can elect politicians who will interfere with a rich person’s right to accumulate and keep as much stuff as possible. As a result, they look  for ways to dilute the majority’s ability to effect change….

More at Whereof One Can Speak.

Your Free, Zero-Calorie Post-Midterm Election Update

If you watched news reports on Tuesday night, you may have gotten the impression that the Democrats had a somewhat disappointing election. You may have gotten the same impression if you read reactions from some of our best-known journalists on Wednesday morning. Quoting Dan Rather:

I’ve noticed some confusion about how elections work. People vote on (and now often before) Election Day. And those votes are counted. All of them. Sometimes it takes a while. Then, and only then, you know who won.

From Jennifer Rubin’s “Three Days Later, Hey, the Republicans Really Did Get Clobbered”:

It turns out the 2018 midterm elections were pretty much a rout. Counting all the votes makes all the difference in the world.

In the House, as of this writing, the Democratic gains are up to 30 with about five more races still to be called — in which Democrats are leading. A gain of 35 seats would be the largest House pickup for Democrats since the first post-Watergate midterm election in 1974.

The Democrats picked up seven governorships, with Stacey Abrams, as of now, still fighting to make it to a runoff in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum trailing by 0.4 percentage points, enough to trigger a recount in Florida.

In the Senate, Democrats may not quite have pulled off an inside straight, but they had two aces — in Nevada and Arizona. With 26 seats to defend, many in red states, it now looks as if their losses will be small. Democrats won in Nevada and are now poised to pick up a seat in Arizona. In the latter, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema surged into the lead as additional Maricopa County ballots were counted.

Meanwhile, Democrats have an outside chance to hold on to Florida. There, Republican Gov. Rick Scott leads by only 0.2 percentage points over Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. If Sinema and Nelson win, Republicans, in a year with the most favorable map in recent history, would pick up only a net of one seat (52 to 48); if Sinema wins but Nelson doesn’t, Republicans would only eke out a net gain of two seats (53 to 47). That’s simply remarkable considering they had to defend incumbents in the following states Trump won, in some cases by double digits: Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Montana, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. As conservative Quin Hillyer put it, one would reasonably expect “Republicans on this map, in this economy . . .  [to gain] at least five seats, with six or seven more likely than three or four.”

Simply because Trump [and other observers] did not see all these losses on Election Night does not make them any less real or consequential for Republicans. Put differently, outside the deepest-red enclaves, Republicans took a beating up and down the ballot.

… States also passed ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, to expand voting [and Medicaid] access and to legalize marijuana; you have to wonder whether Trump and his ilk realize they are in retreat politically and policy-wise.

From her “The Real ‘Real’ America”:

For over two years, Trump and his Fox News helpmates have perpetrated the fraud that only they are the voice of “the people.” That’s what authoritarian regimes and their followers always say. Trump spent two years talking almost exclusively to and for his core group. Sure enough, he can get them out to vote in Missouri, Indiana and North Carolina. But they aren’t a majority of voters nationwide; not even close. His demagoguery, lies, cruelty and incompetence — what his supporters ignore or even relish (he’s our liar!) — the majority, a large majority, of equally real Americans despises.

The 2018 midterm elections are a reminder that presidents and parties have to talk to the whole country. The midterms are also a lesson that victimology only goes so far.

There are true victims in America — opioid addicts, gun victims, sexual assault survivors, cancer patients, victims of police misconduct, children without stable homes. The 70-year-old white male in the top 10 percent of income earners isn’t a victim, no matter what Sean Hannity tells him. You’re not a victim if someone tells you “Happy Holidays” or you hear a “Press 2 for Spanish” option on the phone. You’re not a victim if more and more Americans don’t “look like you”; looking like you has never been a qualification for citizenship. You’re not a victim if gays marry or transgender kids get to use the restroom of their choice at school. The price of living — the requirement of living — in a diverse democracy is tolerance, self-discipline, civility and a minimal amount of civic comprehension.

If Tuesday was about anything, it was a restatement that no American is more real than another. Yes, the majority of Americans are decent, tolerant, fair-minded people, and no one should sink into self-pity and grievance based on their inability to dominate the culture, economy and politics. We are all in this together; we deserve leaders who understand that.

Ballots are still being counted from California to Florida despite Republican efforts to interfere. The Five Thirty Eight site now projects the Democrats will have gained 37 seats in the House. That’s enough to begin restoring sanity when the new Congress convenes in January.

How It Is and How It Got This Way (27 Days)

Most of us tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. We expect the average person to behave properly. Not perfectly, but generally to follow the rules of society. To help those in distress, to keep promises, to tell the truth. That’s why we’re willing to ask people for help instead of fearing they’ll take advantage of us. It’s why we take promises seriously. It’s why we pay attention to what other people say.

Then something like the Kavanaugh nomination comes along. Even after we’ve been exposed to dirty politics repeatedly, we still find it hard to believe that people — such as members of the Senate — who claim to value truth and justice — especially people who are viewed as “moderates” — will ignore those values. Some do rise to the occasion. Too often, we’re disappointed once again.

I kept hoping that two or more Republican senators would vote “no”. It’s still hard to believe that only one decided not to vote “yes”. I’m not crazy, so I wasn’t sure we would win. But I still thought there was a possibility as various Republicans expressed their “concerns”. I thought maybe they’d give each other courage. 

It’s still hard to accept that some politicians lie and otherwise practice bad faith so easily and so frequently. I blogged about a long article a few days ago that helped me understand how they’re able to justify their behavior to themselves:

If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are … a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?

Why shouldn’t you lie in order to put the members of your group in power? Since the people on your side or in your group deserve to be in charge and make the important decisions, why shouldn’t you lie in order to get on the Supreme Court? Or vote “yes” to put that liar on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life?

Garrett Epps writes a “Requiem for the Supreme Court”:

[The Supreme Court’s] decisions were [often] controversial. Many people considered many of them wrong. But this was the nation’s Court; its decisions were rooted in the Constitution and in a shared interest in national unity.

Throughout all of this, Democratic and Republican appointees on the Court clashed, crossed, and formed coalitions. Neither those who praised it nor those who cursed it regarded the Court as the instrument of party politics.

But that idea began to fray…

One party made the Supreme Court a partisan issue. First Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan made attacks on the Court part of Republican Party dogma….But I think no fair-minded person could deny that a major barrier was crossed in 1991 when a Republican president, for political reasons, appointed a justice [Clarence Thomas] who was manifestly unqualified for the office, and who faced numerous, credible claims of sexual misbehavior as a government official. It was hard to watch the nominee testify in October 1991 without concluding that Anita Hill had told the truth and that Thomas had lied. But the administration pushed ahead regardless. This was the first major step over a dangerous threshold.

The next step came in 2000, when five Republican appointees on the Court extended its authority to decide a national election, in defiance of federal statutes, the Constitution’s text, and their own frequently expressed pieties about “our federalism.” The Court has aggressively made itself part of partisan politics, but even then, some of the justices who dissented were Republican appointees.

Partisanship sputtered for the next decade and a half. John Roberts was confirmed as chief justice with the votes of 22 Democrats––half of the party’s Senate caucus. Samuel Alito was the object of an attempted filibuster by Democrats, but was still confirmed with four Democratic votes. Sonia Sotomayor won nine Republican votes; Elena Kagan got five Republican votes and lost one Democratic vote. Justice Anthony Kennedy continued to move back and forth within the Court across partisan lines.

As the new Court settled in, people began to wonder whether the wounds of 2000 might be closing.

Then, in 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died.

President Barack Obama, facing a Republican Senate, carefully nominated a moderate whom even Senator Orrin Hatch had previously designated as acceptable to both sides. But then the rules changed. Scalia’s seat, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, would not be filled, no matter what. Republicans had a majority in the Senate and could use it for any purpose they wished—including making the Supreme Court seat a plum partisan patronage job to be filled after the next presidential election. Republican nominee Donald Trump assured Republican voters that he would appoint justices who would “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade. To make this clearer, he released a short list of nominees, in effect putting their names on the presidential ballot beside his. Another threshold was crossed: a Court seat was a partisan prize, its holders subject to popular vote.

That brings us to the last few weeks in Washington, when the Senate Judiciary Committee met under the pretext that it would listen to testimony from an ordinary American, Christine Blasey Ford….The debate and the vote that followed were not about the Court, not about the law; they were about the Republican Party. They were about teaching the rest of us that we cannot refuse what Trump and McConnell want. They were a demonstration that in the new order there is no individual, no norm, no institution not subject to the control of the ruling party.

Brian Beutler analyzes “The Trumpification of the Supreme Court”:

Even before he stood accused of sexual assault, Kavanaugh was a totem for the forces of dishonesty and bad faith, angling to deceive his way into power by hiding and lying about his career and his agenda.

Kavanaugh has been systematically misleading the Senate since 2004. Rather than own up to his history as a partisan activist lawyer, he disguised his life’s work with spin and outright lies. He disclaimed his role, as an associate White House counsel, in helping to confirm some of the most controversial circuit court judges on the bench. He feigned ignorance of the lawless torture and warrantless wiretapping policies of the Bush administration, and then counted on Republicans in the Senate and the White House to conceal his complete record. He knowingly trafficked in stolen Senate Democratic records to help coach Bush judicial nominees, and then lied about it, concocting the flimsiest of excuses, and offering the Democrats whose documents were stolen not a single word of remorse.

Despite this background, he laughably insisted to the Senate in 2004 that his “background has not been in partisan politics.”

Kavanugh’s appointment is thus an extension of Trump’s contempt for U.S. governing institutions as anything other than instruments of raw partisan power.

Erwin Chemerinsky describes “A Very Tarnished Court”:

Conservatives [have fulfilled] a quest that began with Richard Nixon’s campaign for president in 1968 and intensified during Ronald Reagan’s presidency: putting a staunch conservative majority on the Supreme Court. But the way that they have accomplished this has greatly tarnished the Court, perhaps irreparably. It is impossible to know the long-term consequences of this, but the Court and how it is perceived will never be the same.

….This will [be] the most conservative Court since the mid-1930s, with five justices at the far right of the political spectrum. No longer will there be Republican appointees like John Paul Stevens or David Souter, or even a moderate conservative like Lewis Powell, Sandra Day O’Connor or Anthony Kennedy.

What is stunning is that each of the five conservative justices—Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh—came on to the Court in a manner that lacks legitimacy. Each is a disturbing story, but even worse, cumulatively they make it clear that the current Court is little more than an extension of Republican power plays in a way that never has occurred in American history.

He then recounts the ugly events that put Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch and now Kavanaugh on the court. He concludes:

Any one of these events would be a hit on the Court’s legitimacy. But to have the entire majority of the Court there only because of shameful behavior inevitably will tarnish the Court.

It is unclear at this moment how it will matter that the Court will be clearly perceived as an extension of the Republican Party. Maybe it will lead to a crisis of legitimacy for the Court, as occurred in the mid-1930s. Perhaps at some point it will lead to open defiance of the Court. Maybe it will cause the Democrats to try to increase the size of the Court if they have control of the presidency and Congress after the November 2020 elections. [Note: the Constitution doesn’t say the Court should have nine members. It had 10 in 1863.]

The only thing that is certain is that conservatives will gain control of the Court as they have long desired—in the process, irreparably hurting the institution by the way they have accomplished this.

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. It also grows from the ideas of defunct economists. In the United States, for now, it still grows out of ballots cast and properly counted. 

The next election is 27 days away.