Democratic Institutions

Three institutional problems of representative democracies.

Max Weber in his classic essay of 1919, “Politics as a Vocation”, identified one of the problems that crop up in the cluster of institutions that make up representative democracy. He was concerned about the outlook of politicians who hold office in a democratic legislature, Germany having had a representative legislature ever since the establishment of the Second Reich in 1870, even if controlled only domestic policy and not foreign policy. Weber said that there were professional and amateur politicians. What he meant by that were that professional politicians wanted to remain in office and so were used to the give and take of legislative negotiations while amateur politicians were interested in their causes and so stood by their principles for however long they were in office. Weber clearly preferred the professionals and would see no reason to change his mind if he could see American politics today: the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus stalwarts more interested in their principles than what is actually accomplished, confident that their base will re-elect them for their principles alone. Senator McCain was invoking the Weber distinction yesterday when he said that there was a conflict between passion and reason, meaning by that that the passionate advocates of repeal and maybe not replace Obamacare were responding to their principles, their sentiments, rather than to doing something reasonable and workable. There are other difficulties in representative democracy that have become clear since Weber and that can also be illustrated with current political events.

So legislative give and take can intrude between the desires of the electorate to have what they want when they want it and the idea of representative democracy, which is that power is placed in the hands of people who make their own judgments and compromises to realize what they believe to be realizable. People get elected, not policies and representative democracy makes use of both kinds of motivation. An additional complexity of representative democracy was provided with much analysis during the half century from the Forties through the Nineties. It was the issue of how voters became inclined to vote for one candidate rather than another. It started out as an airtight science. Paul Lazarsfeld could use survey methods to show that people voted their religion, their economic and social status, their education, and other demographic characteristics, rather than on the basis of ideology. This analysis held up pretty well over the rest of the century. Elections were either correctly predicted or predicted to be too close to call, and so sound representative government would rest on the will of an electorate firmly grounded in its own social and economic issues, the voter playing their dutiful and reasonable role in selecting the next government. Politicians were people who specialized in mastering the electoral process rather than had great command over the policies they would favor should they become elected, should they have policies they favored, which was the case with that master politician Lyndon Johnson or  that other master politician, FDR, who always knew how to appeal to the sense of the electorate, as when he dreamed up “Lendlease” as a way for a not ready for war public to allow him to give war supplies to the Brits and who once said of himself that he could probably name each of the Democratic chairman of the local Democratic Committees in every county he might pass through on a cross country auto trip, FDR may not have understood the details of much of the New Deal legislation he got through Congress, but he knew his politics.

Today, elections are uncertain not in the sense that they are close, Trump’s election only the third since the close JFK victory (Nixon the first time, George W. Bush in his first election, and now Trump over Clinton, where there was a very close victory in the electoral college. They are uncertain in the sense that it is unclear what message the voters intend to send, what issues or interests motivated them. Reagan Democrats were concerned about social issues like abortion rather than about economic issues, and so voted against their voting histories, and Clinton voters preferred him to George H. W. Bush presumably because of economic issues. Remember “It's the economy, stupid”? But what motivated those less than one hundred thousand voters in three states that went for Trump? His charming personality? His views on women? An economy that actually wasn’t all that bad? Pundits are left in a quandary, which is why I just describe his election as a fluke, and therefore not needing explanation. It just happened even if it has real consequences, such as a right wing agenda made possible because, for some reason or no reason at all, certainly not because his electorate required it of him, Trump decided to push right wing economics and right wing disestablishment of social programs, to the extent he even understands that. It is a problem for an electorate when they do not speak clearly even if narrowly. How is the President and Congress to be the voice of the people when the people don’t know what they want because there is nobody, pollster or pundits, to tell them what, deep down, they want?

There is a third problem that arises in representative democracy which has only become starkly apparent since Trump became President. What happens if a manifestly incompetent person is elevated to that office. What followed Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan was the Civil War, though I don’t know if even a genius politician could have avoided that and it took a genius politician, Lincoln, to end it. For the most part, incompetent Presidents like Harding don’t matter because they do not preside in “interesting” times. Or else, like Reagan, they have a superb cabinet to serve them, or like George Bush, have a rogue cabinet to undermine them. But there are ever new contenders for high office who are not qualified, the most famous previous to Trump example being Sarah Palin, though there were many contenders in the Republican primaries who were clearly unqualified and who were popular for a while, including Rick Perry and Ben Carson.  The parties do not screen their primary candidates. That is reason enough for some people to think about bringing back the smoke filled room as the place where presidential candidates are chosen. But that got us both Warren Harding and George W. Bush, the second of these candidates drafted by the big contributors who did not want a long set of disputed primaries. It is very hard to figure out how to keep the voters from anointing an unqualified candidate as a Presidential candidate or even as President.

With Trump as President, a foreign policy establishment has, so far, done no major damage, even if his domestic policy crew that is out to undo everything Obama accomplished. Trump’s White House team makes the early and dysfunctional Clinton team seem god-like. The most interesting part of Jared Kushner’s meeting with the Russians was that his excuse for getting out of there was that he found the discussion of adoptions boring. If he had been properly briefed or been a news junkie before he got to the White House, he would have known that “adoption” was a code word for lifting sanctions against the Russians. Why would Donald Jr. schedule meetings with the Russians without going over key issues with State Department people about outstanding issues? Or having a sequencing of such meetings? Or prepared talking points? Either there was treason in the works or there was gross incompetence in the family members who served as staff for the President. People I know who have worked in Washington tell me that you learn to negotiate with foreign powers by being brought along in the process, like internes who eventually turn out to be attendings. You can’t just step into it, not even knowing how to prep for meetings or how to sequence them.

When impeachment proceedings finally begin, what may motivate Congress people may not be treason but the belief that Trump is not a credible President, that his staff as well as himself know nothing about governing, and that we are well rid of him. That is one way to deal with the election of a very imperfect President who reveals his true self both in his campaign and in his first six months in office though I hope it does not set a precedent, given the fact that people had no trust that Truman would rise to the occasion of having succeeded FDR, and yet he did. We need to preserve the idea that a President is elected for four years, and not just to serve at the pleasure of Congress, but that requires having the two parties nominate people of sound enough character and knowledge so that whichever one gets elected the citizenry can stick with them.