Is American democracy wilting at the edges like an old Roman cheese...
American democracy faces many current challenges — from climate change, to housing shortages, to pandemics, to James Cordon ditching LA for Blighty, — our institutions are like creaking senior citizens dependent on a slightly wobbly walking stick and a run down old jalopy. Once limber and quick they are struggling to act quickly and decisively. Democratic processes often get captured by special interests or paralysed by polarisation. And, in response, public faith in government has reached a new low.
It calls for a renovation of our democracy. Kinda like a couple of weeks at a health spa (with a smattering of light plastic surgery on the side).
What would it mean to build a better, more responsive and inclusive government - you know just a little nip and tick. What are the numerous challenges standing in the way of doing that. Other then finding a good surgeon.....
One response (short of the surgeon's knife and perhaps more optimistic) is "power-sharing liberalism”. It aims to place political equality, power and participation at the centre of liberal thinking. It requires broader involvement by the people in government and a broader spectrum for measuring the success of our society beyond GDP. It also requires that we believe man is basically good and altruistic (like Rupert Murdoch) or that at least if enough of us are paying attention that we want to look like we're good and altruistic (even more like Rupert Murdoch).
It also requires that we actually want a deeper participation in government — not just better results from the government (but please don't involve us in the details... other than letting us trash you on social media.) A look at our recent history suggests a deep alienation and separation of the general public from the outcomes of governmental actions (other than the social media part). Kinda like we want our cake when we want it but don't be asking us to actually bake it or buy the ingredients or even help decide what kind of cake we should be serving... JUST SHOW UP WITH A CAKE I LIKE!
Maga conservatives and Brexit-obsessed Tories are and were able to voice the frustration people have with a government they don’t feel like they have a voice in. Brexit and Trump were the primordial scream of frustration the ultimate 'fuck you' to a government that too often seems to work only for elites or for anybody but the frustrated masses. Democracies without broad participation tend to become oligarchies. And so become less legitimate to the normal citizen. That’s why it’s important that the process of democracy and government includes inputs from a wide array of citizens from everywhere. You know like that old nursery rhyme - the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Just more vegan, please.
Government legitimacy comes from its outcomes, comes from getting done the things that the people want done — not from having a legitimate or overly legitimate process. So the butcher is less concerned about how the cake is made he just wants something good to eat after his main particularly when it's vegan and might taste like cardboard.
Liberals have erred by focusing too much on legitimizing government through process (is Starmer too stodgy?) and have not been concerned enough about the outcomes (Did Cameron think before saying whee -lets have a go on the referendum roller coaster). Maga conservatives just rail against the process (hello Trump on an escalator) and appeal to the estrangement of government from the people (Johnson speaking in Latin). Or like Chelsea fans on an average weekend out at the terraces.
What do I mean when I talk about liberalism. Liberalism in the first instance, is committed to the protection of rights. That’s what makes it liberalism.
So protecting freedom of expression and freedom of association but also freedom to participate, to vote, to run for office, to not get doused in petro-chemicals when I take a dip in the local river. To be one of the people that is co-creating the public norms and constraints that shape all of our lives. You know so we can ALL trample on our rights.
Liberalism is our protection of rights. And power-sharing liberalism recognizes that all of the versions of liberalism we’ve had — 18th century, 19th century, 20th century — have always had a fatal flaw in their heart, and that fatal flaw was to reserve power to the few. So in classical liberalism — late 18th, early 19th century — political power is reserved to people who hold property — more or less white men for the most part as property holders. There’s Trump again…
Then in the 20th century we begin to move towards some kind of larger inclusion of all people. We get the right to vote for women. We get voting protection for African Americans. But we still see a political system that is still reserving power — concentrating power in elites of various forms — moneyed elites, technocratic elites etc. The Rockefellers and the Bill Gates' of the world still rule. With a smattering of John Lennon as an annoying conscience or like Adele preaching to Corden on the way to work when he’s ditching her for Blighty. (Is he really giving up sunny LA for rainy ol’ England??!)
Here's where power-sharing liberalism comes in. It's the goal. It's how to build, in the 21st century, a version of a rights protecting constitutional democracy where power is genuinely shared throughout organizational structures, throughout political institutions with all the people. Which is mumbo jumbo for lets all have a go at crashing this car!
It calls for a wider participation of people in our democracy, as opposed to participation limited to those who are most intensely motivated by democratic commitment.
We have to not lose sight that the point of democracy is to support human well-being. There's an ancient Roman phrase (not to be like Johnson or anything but its salient), “salus populi suprema lex esto”— the health and well-being of the people is the supreme law — that Roman phrase is what lies behind the language of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. When the Declaration talks about achieving safety and happiness for all of us, and when the Constitution talks about the welfare — the general welfare, it is exactly that same concept of “salus populi”— the health and well-being of the people.
So democracy has to deliver for that. But over the centuries American democracy and its institutions have been neutered. And look how that kind of ‘neutering’ worked out for the Romans… We could be one ‘Gladiator’ movie away from it all going down the hand basket.
Mitch McConnell famously said when he came back into the majority at a certain point — “Winners make policy and losers go home.” I guess like Trump to Mar-a-Lago. That is the antithesis of a stable democratic norm.
The point of a democratic structure filled with committees is that the losers stay on the committee. The winner gets to chair the committee, but the loser stays on the committee. And the point should be that there is, in fact, a process that does keep the losers in the mix in terms of some kind of synthetic outcome. Just not one located in Rwanda.
That's why in theory the American filibuster should work. It’s just that it doesn’t because it doesn’t seem to be the thing voters reward. And for anyone non American or wisely uninterested in the goings on inside, the filibuster is a way for lawmakers to vote for or actually avoid voting for things. It is about as democratic as my backyard.
Voters could reward the politicians who acted as the filibuster says they should act and come together. But we see — particularly on the right, though not only — that this actual rule that should create an ability for the minority to be always involved, actually creates a way for the minority not to be involved but to be obstructive, and at being obstructive, to have a quicker path back to the majority. And in doing that to further divide things. If you still, after all this, get my meaning.
So what did the filibuster get wrong? Well first of all we got Mitch baby busy being a force of obstruction instead of a can do attitude. Like a grumpy old man jamming his finger in the dike of democracy.
Democracy is majority rule. But that's not actually right in the USA. Democracy is about equal empowerment across a body of free and equal citizens, and that is achieved through a combination of tools.
Majority rule is one of the most important tools, but you also need a variety of minority protection devices. Like shadow cabinets, prime ministers questions, the house of Lords, the electoral college, the courts, the rule of law - and, of course, The Sun newspaper. The filibuster is also one of those tools. But it is used wrongly today. Today it's applied all the time when it should only be applied to major pieces of legislation to ensure that it can't be weaponized to be used as a tool of obstruction and paralysis of the legislative process - as it has been in the hands of McConnell.
If you want effective, functional government you use 50% plus 1 for most legislation and supermajorities and the filibuster requirement of 60% of votes is reserved for legislation that rises to a constitutional level. Britain with majority parliamentary rule avoids this issue but the US has it in spades. Britain has other issues. Like a party constantly changing PM's and anyone else and calling elections in the booster honeymoon period before another gazillion strikes are called.
Power sharing liberalism should be the solution. It requires a deliberative democracy and its contingent on the participation of a large part of the populace. And the populace needs to participate. It's our responsibility. Like begging Corden to keep karaokeing in LA!
The Letts Journal is a reader-supported publication in which you get to participate - kinda. To receive new posts and support our work, go full on democratic, and consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Keep up to date with The Letts Journal’s latest news stories and updates on twitter.