Functional Apathy’s Opposite

Steven Metz muses, "Scholars argue that too much political mobilization can make democracies dysfunction. Is that where the US is today?"

Steven Metz muses, “Scholars argue that too much political mobilization can make democracies dysfunction. Is that where the US is today?”

It’s an interesting question and one I’m inclined to answer in the affirmative.

Social scientists have a term for the opposite condition: functional apathy. The notion is that, when things are going well, there’s really not much reason for ordinary citizens to be all that active in politics. In a system with two catch-all parties, i.e., those that aim to capture majorities by tacking to the center, there’s relatively little difference which one controls the levers of power from the perspective of the daily lives of ordinary Joes. So, it’s really irrational for people to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy to be informed about politics, much less work on campaigns, go to rallies, and the like.

From time to time, though, there’s an inflection point where one or both parties goes from being catch-all to being programmatic. Usually, it accompanies economic or social upheaval of some sort. During those times, politics really matters.

The Democrats went through a period from roughly 1968 to 1992 where they were out of step with the political culture at the central level. During that period, only one Democrat–Jimmy Carter, a Christian evangelical from Georgia–won the presidency. To be sure, the controlled the House of Representatives during that entire period, but only because the South was still voting lockstep for Democrats in state and local races.

Bill Clinton and his Democratic Leadership Council wing moved the party back to the center and it has remained quite competitive ever since, winning three of five presidential elections and getting more votes than the Republicans in four out of five.

Meanwhile, the Republicans slowly started becoming an ideological, programmatic party. It began with Ronald Reagan in 1980 in a process that quickly peeled the social conservatives out of the Democratic coalition but slowly led to them taking over the party from the ground up.

This led to three landslides in a row but then the wheels fell off. The Electoral College Lock that Republicans were said to have was picked in 1992. Mostly because of immigration policy but also a host of social issues, the GOP seems to have permanently lost California and with it nearly a fifth of the Electoral College.

To be sure, Republicans still won back-to-back terms in 2000 and 2004, albeit narrowly and controversially in the first of these. And they’ve done better than ever in Congress, seizing control of the House of Representatives  in 1994 for the first time in decades and having held it almost every cycle since.

But the Tea Party wave in 2010 has put into office leaders afraid to lead. They can’t bring themselves to agree to a debt reduction deal that by any sane measure is a massive victory because it’s not a complete victory.

Otto von Bismarck famously declared, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Nowadays, though, massive numbers of people are not only seeing but Tweeting, blogging, and YouTubing the process. The impact, thus far, is not only a loss of appetite but an inability to produce sausage.

FILED UNDER: Political Theory, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Murray says:

    It seems to me that the problem isn’t so much that everybody does politics, but that the diversity is no longer represented. In other words, we have reached the limits of a two party only system.

    It was functional as long as both parties had strong factions within them, northern liberal and southern dixiecrats on the Democratic side and pretty much the same for Republicans. It meant that on both sides individuals felt safe to side with the other party on certain issues.

    Today, there is such an entrenchment on both sides that we are caught in a debate system which implicitly imposes that there are ALWAYS, and ONLY, TWO ways of considering EVERY issue. Which of course is absurd.

    Wouldn’t we be better of for example if we had a Liberal-Democratic party, a Liberal Libertarian party, a Social Conservative party and a Burkian Conservative party?

    Each of these factions would be better defined and limited ideologically, but none would be able to have the majority and would have to compromise with other factions to get things done. The only point where both parties seem to agree is to keep anybody from building a third or forth meaningful political force in this country, which is enough to consider it/them as necessary.

    The presidency might then require a two stage election, like in France, to select amongst three or more candidates of similar force, but I have come to the point where I do believe a fundamental change in the process is required.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Unfortunately, Murray, in a winner-take-all system like ours only a two party system is stable. I think the fundamental problem we’re facing is the loss of the center from both political parties. Center-right Democrats have mostly become Republicans; center-left Republicans have mostly become Democrats.

  3. ponce says:

    From a historical perspective , America is in a rather quiet period.

    So what is causing all the abnormal interest in politics?

  4. Murray says:

    @Dave Schuler:
    “Unfortunately, Murray, in a winner-take-all system like ours only a two party system is stable”

    Huh! I precisely advocate the end of the winner take all system. Nothing in the Constitution imposes such a system. Madison actually argued that more there were factions (parties in the parlance of the day) the better.

  5. Murray says:

    @Dave Schuler:
    Besides, even in a two party system we are not in a winner take all situation. As JJ pointed out, the GOP has a majority in the House. But Democrats have a majority in the Senate and are in the WH.

    Actually we are in a nobody has absolute power but everybody thinks they do situation.

  6. JKB says:


    The overt, persistent and insistent interference with the daily lives of Americans.

    In general, people don’t worry to much about the yammerings of DC as it has been distant from their daily lives. We are now at the inflection point, the eternal drive to usurp individual liberty that has crept along since the birth of the democracy has come so far it can no longer hideout in the beltway, no longer occur separate from daily life. The Obamacare debate may have been the trigger but this point has been coming with every silent creep toward socialism. Public schools, welfare, public roads, pollution control, etc. all take away a bit of the individuals liberty to achieve a collective benefit. At some point an overt battle over the amount of individual freedom to surrender to achieve the goals of the socialistic state had to happen. It appears we are at that point.

    Achieving the balance is the key between public good and individual sacrifice. The programs of late with the take over of healthcare, the efforts to control energy, the ever increasing impositions on personal decisions, have been far more cost that the perceived benefit. Prohibition is one of the most famous experiments and it failed when faced with American individualism. Now, we have these new sumptuary laws along with a debt that will collapse the ability of the state to perform even its “police powers” even as the current administrators forgo those duties to expand their favored socialist program.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Murray: Duverger’s law says the single member district systems will be two party systems. The Constitution specifies a series of SMD contests: one for each House seat (districts), one for each Senate seat (state) and (currently) 51 (50 states + DC) for the presidency.

  8. John Peabody says:

    Nice piece, Mr. Joyner.

  9. Murray says:

    @James Joyner:
    I freely admit that I am not a Constitutional scholar and I don’t know what SMD means. I was always told that both Senators and Representatives were elected by direct election, i.e. voters directly cast ballots for the person without specifying the details of such vote.

    That is why I argued that there was no constitutional reason to impose a two party system since a multiple round system can perfectly accommodate more than two parties.

    Note that once elected, nothing would prevent as far as I know several factions to coalesce around a platform to impose a policy in Congress.

  10. Trojan in DC says:

    Dr. Joyner and co, this isn’t directly related to anything discussed in the peice above but it is certainly an interesting article.,3

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Murray: Basically, both House and Senate elections are done by plurality–whoever gets most votes wins, even if it’s not a majority–and in a single district.There are 435 House seats, apportioned as the result of a census every decade, and each state is entitled to at least one Representative. Senators are elected at-large, they represent the whole state, not a part of it.

    The tendency for such a system, as night follows day, is for two parties to emerge because small parties have almost no chance of obtaining any power.

    I’m not sure how we could change to a proportional system without amending the Constitution and tend to be opposed to the idea in any case.

  12. CB says:

    We are now at the inflection point, the eternal drive to usurp individual liberty that has crept along since the birth of the democracy has come so far it can no longer hideout in the beltway, no longer occur separate from daily life. The Obamacare debate may have been the trigger but this point has been coming with every silent creep toward socialism.

    im not looking to debate your entire point, but how do you determine that obamacare, of all things, was the tipping point regarding personal liberty? data mining didnt bother you? suspension of habeus corpus? warrantless wiretapping? extraordinary rendition? these werent worthy of a tea party freakout? they all seemed to be rather serious affronts to liberty (especially in comparison to a healthcare law), but nary a peep was heard.

    im honestly not going for hyperbole here, nor am i looking to do a scorecard of bush vs obama. im just wondering how you justify the oh so sudden outrage?

  13. Murray says:

    @James Joyner:
    Sorry guys but a locally winner takes all system does not impose that only two parties should be present on every ballot in every district in the nation. (All democracies ultimately select a single representative per district, but there are plenty of examples of functional democracies with 3-5 major parties some of which coalesce around a platform.) There is no need to amend the Constitution, what needs to be amended is the idea that you must be Republican or Democrat to be elected. (A proportional system is only needed if you restrict yourself to a single round vote in every district.)

    Nothing in the Constitution, or in common sense, imposes that every debate, every television show, every blog, every newspaper, every tavern “debate” should always have two and only two point of views held by the same group of people.

    It is precisely the inability to think outside this narrow self inflicted limitation that makes me go crazy. Our whole public discourse “infrastructure” is built around the premise R vs D, without anyone being able to say what R or D stands for, or that the answer may very well be neither R nor D.

    As a matter for thought I will submit to you one of the results of a recent study I came across (sorry I lost the link) showing that the most polarized European legislative body was in … Switzerland! Ok, these guys have a parliamentary system, but who would have thought they actually go about business with 4-5 ideologically entrenched parties who beat the shit out of each other before reaching compromises on various issues because none of them has a majority.

  14. Trumwill says:

    Murray, there are more than two parties. The thing is, with rare exception, only two parties ever win. The Republicans and Democrats are who we choose.

    That being said, states could allow more flexibility if they required a majority of the vote. That’s quite constitutional. Doing so could open the gates to more parties. For instance, the Green Party could run in heavily Democratic districts and might even win here and there as people would not fear that a Green Vote is handing something to the Republicans. Ditto for Republicans and the Constitution Party.

    But let’s say that we did that. The Greens that get elected would almost certainly caucus with the Democrats. TCP would almost certainly caucus with the Republicans. So you might see some change in party labels, but not so much in the way of substance.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB: Paranoid, fact-free bullshit.

    Taxes are lower, not higher.

    Environmental controls have virtually no impact on individual lives.

    The public schools are part of creeping socialism? Setting aside the fact we’ve had public since forever, we’ve added homeschooling and unschooling to the mix. So the “imposition” has actually lessened.

    No, what’s changed is we have Rupert Murdoch’s noise machine brainwashing imbeciles to believe the world is coming to an end.

  16. Dave Ely says:

    @James Joyner:

    This is no longer true in California (plurality winners). The top two primary system recently adopted allows for only two candidates in general elections (the top two vote-getters from the primary). This eliminates the perverse effects of third party or independent candidacies.

  17. WR says:

    @michael reynolds: And a black guy in the White House.

  18. john personna says:

    The smart guys became (at least functional) independents long ago.

    [An independent voter never has to defend partisan BS.]

  19. @Murray:

    Sorry guys but a locally winner takes all system does not impose that only two parties should be present on every ballot in every district in the nation.

    Actually it does. Not intentionally, but as a consequence of Duveger’s Law, a Single Member District Plurality voting system like ours eventually leads to a two party system. If you want more than two parties, you need to switch to proportiona voting.