Saving American Democracy
The Politician's Syllogism rears its ugly head.
An odd piece at the Bulwark from Ian Bassin, “Democracy Cannot Survive the Fracturing of the Democratic Coalition,” is making the rounds. After some throat-clearing about goings-on in Poland and Russia, he gets to his point:
A united opposition is the best way to defeat an autocrat. And a fractured opposition opens the pathway for one to attain power.
This is a precept that America’s Democratic coalition ought to have top of mind this week. Especially those parts of the coalition threatening to derail the legislation House and Senate leaders plan to bring to the floor.
Because while each wing of the governing coalition may feel that aspects of the policies they prefer are good for—and even necessary for—democracy, if they can’t reach a deal, not only will they not deliver on any of those policies, but this failure will be a boon to the authoritarian forces waiting to regain power.
There are practical political reasons why the failure to pass either of the bills would help the anti-democratic forces. (The lack of legislative accomplishment is likely to hurt Democrats in 2022 and weaken President Biden in 2024.) But more important may be the psychological component. If Democrats cannot govern even with the presidency and majorities in both houses, then it would demonstrate to the American people that democracy may not be workable in our current moment. And it’s in situations like that when a strongman who promises that “I alone can fix it” becomes more attractive.
But it’s important to note that this lesson ought to be heeded by the full anti-authoritarian coalition. Which means not just Democrats, but pro-democracy Republicans.
Mitt Romney and other Republican senators ought to understand the importance of unified opposition, too. Because while Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and the seven Republican senators who voted to convict in Donald Trump’s second impeachment have been admirable, they have not yet collectively done the thing that saves democracies from authoritarian takeovers: forming a governing coalition with their traditional opponents, even if only on issues about democracy itself, to block the autocrat’s path to power.
In their book How Democracies Die, the Harvard scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt compared four countries’ experiences in interwar Europe. In Belgium and Finland, far-right extremist parties gained some traction after World War I. In both countries, the center-right united with the left to block those anti-democratic parties from ascending further to power.
In Italy and Germany on the other hand, the center-right in both cases chose not to do that, and instead sought to co-opt the political appeal of rising far-right movements by incorporating them into their ranks. We all know what happened next.
Thus far, most pro-democracy Republicans have chosen to try to tame, or co-opt, the rising authoritarians in their midst. This is a mistake. Stopping the next authoritarian attempt will require a broad, united opposition.
This unity of purpose is more crucial than any legislation.
This strikes me as a convoluted version of the Politician’s Syllogism:
- We must do something.
- This is something.
- Therefore, we must do this.
It’s true that authoritarianism has increasingly taken over my former party. The continued insistence without evidence that the election was somehow stolen from Donald Trump—combined with redoubled efforts by his party to rig future elections in their favor—should concern us all.
And, yes, the handful of reasonable Republicans should do what’s necessary to hold back these forces, even if it means throwing their support behind Democratic candidates after having failed to nominate reasonable Republicans in the primaries.
But Bassin goes much further. He’s arguing that policies that even some Democratic Senators oppose simply must be passed because, well, reasons. His best point is this:
If Democrats cannot govern even with the presidency and majorities in both houses, then it would demonstrate to the American people that democracy may not be workable in our current moment.
First, Democrats have an incredibly think majority in the House and the Senate is split 50-50; we don’t get to count Joe Biden’s presidency (and thus Kamala Harris’ vice presidency) twice. Second, as already noted, there isn’t unanimity on these bills even within the Democratic Party. It’s silly to argue that Progressives have a duty to cave in to Joe Manchin’s agenda or vice-versa because otherwise Trump benefits.
Further, it’s simply true that democracy isn’t workable in our current moment, if by “democracy” we mean the wishes of a bare majority being enacted into a $4 trillion dollar package that doesn’t enjoy universal support even within the majority party. While our system has been distorted almost beyond recognition, it was purposely designed to preclude major policy changes being enacted without sustained consensus. That hyperpartisanship and polarization have compounded this is unfortunate, indeed, but it’s not a new phenomenon.
If the idea is some sort of Grand Coalition to stand as a bulwark against creeping authoritarianism, then the natural consequence of that would be something along the lines of the Median Senator Theorum. But I’m not sure that putting Joe Manchin and Mitt Romney in charge of the government is necessarily any more democratic than what we have now.