Saving American Democracy

The Politician's Syllogism rears its ugly head.

The Politician's Syllogism rears its ugly head.
Image CC0 Public Domain

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:

  1. We must do something.
  2. This is something.
  3. 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.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Democratic Theory, Society
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.

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    Bassin’s point, that the center right should support the left to block the far right, seems clear enough. Your objection, I fear, is less clear. Bassin is arguing, in effect, that a few center-right GOPs should support the misnamed 3.5T reconciliation package. You’re arguing the Ds have a thin majority, so that’s it. Bassin isn’t arguing that Manchin and Romney as median senators should control everything to their tastes. Bassin’s not arguing for a centrist “grand coalition”. He’s arguing the centrists should grit their teeth and support the left, to save the country from the greater evil of Trumpism.

    What we have here is Dr. T’s ongoing lesson in the evils of our two party system. If we had multiple parties, the center-right party(s) could make a strategic decision to support the left party(s). But our center-right is a few individuals scattered in the two major parties. The centrist Republicans would have to buck their own party and face primary challenges to support Biden’s agenda. Burr and Toomey, who are retiring anyway, could bust this whole silly situation wide open.

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  2. JohnSF says:

    It may not be more democratic; but is it more effective at excluding the authoritarians?
    Possibly a different question

    Arguably the UK was the least democratic western European polity in the inter-War period, and also the most resistant to authoritarians.

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  3. Scott F. says:

    I beg to differ. Bassin’s best point is this one:

    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.

    Because in this framing, Republicans have agency. Only 20% of Republican Senators would need to put democracy over authoritarianism in order to make the filibuster less of an anti-majoritarian veto. They wouldn’t even need to vote for the policies – they’d only need to allow cloture to pass on a Democratic bill – any bill – so debate could end and a vote could be held.

    With the filibuster restored to a tool of last resort rather than the defacto requirement for 60 votes it currently is, the hodgepodge of a $3.5T bill wouldn’t have to be done in reconciliation. The All Or Nothing situation we are in now could proceed to the more traditional legislative sausage making we had back in the day when Republicans weren’t so nihilistic en masse.

    As, rightfully, the rise of authoritarianism should be a concern to us all, Bassin is pressing the right point. His is not a call for the Democrats to behave more monolithically, but for the Republicans to behave less so.

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  4. CSK says:

    @JohnSF:
    The British resistance to authoritarians might have something to do with the existence of the royal family.

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  5. JKB says:

    We may be closer to the inter-war period in Europe than we think, but glossing over the Leftist parties taking power in attempted dictatorship and then being opposed by the Rightists doesn’t help. Although the later lesson is to prepare for a group of sociopaths to take over, whether it be on the Left or Right, when such power is seized.

    An observation from the inter-war period without the gloss put on by post-war writers who had knowledge of what came to pass:

    The Social Democrats were democratic only so long as they were not the ruling party; that is, so long as they still felt themselves not strong enough to suppress their opponents by force. The moment they thought themselves the strongest, they declared themselves— as their writers had always asserted was advisable at this point— for dictatorship. Only when the armed bands of the Rightist parties had inflicted bloody defeats on them did they again become democratic “until further notice.” Their party writers express this by saying: “In the councils of the social democratic parties, the wing which declared for democracy triumphed over the one which championed dictatorship.”

    Of course, the only party that may properly be described as democratic is one that under all circumstances— even when it is the strongest and in control— champions democratic institutions.

    Mises, Ludwig von (1927). Liberalism

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  6. JohnSF says:

    @JKB:
    I am not aware of any party of the democratic left that attempted to impose a dictatorship in Europe between the Wars.
    There were anti-democratic left parties who did: Bela Kun communists in Hungary, Spartacists in Germany.
    Mises, is to use the technical phrase favoured by historians, talking crap.

    Incidentally, that he is still viewed as an authority by American “conservatives” shows the intellectual mire they are floundering in.

    “Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and … their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization.”

    What a twerp.

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  7. JohnSF says:

    @CSK:
    Perhaps.
    On the other hand, that did not save Italy or Spain.

    I was thinking more of the political systems and structures.
    A massive pressure towards a two party system, the pressures on the parties to include radicals but compete in the centre, the (mostly) dominant position of elites vs activists within parties, and the various systems of “established order”: Lords, Church, Magistracy, Councils, education, the professions, even in a way the trade unions.

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  8. CSK says:

    @JohnSF:
    I know. I was thinking of Italy and Spain. But the historical and social differences between the U.K. and the Continental countries are vast. I would also credit the Magna Carta with establishing the principle that even the king is subject to the law.

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  9. @JKB: Counter-point: a lot of social democratic parties have governed democratically in the post-war period.

    Of course, the only party that may properly be described as democratic is one that under all circumstances— even when it is the strongest and in control— champions democratic institutions.

    So that makes the contemporary Reps anti-democratic, yes?

    (You are hoisting the GOP, and some of your own views, on your beloved Von Mises petard).

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  10. JohnSF says:

    @CSK:
    Actually not as purely Brit as you might think.
    There was a long tradition of tension in Spain between Castilian monarchs who believe in their divine right and e.g. the Lords of Aragon and their oath of allegiance 🙂 to the crown:

    “We, who are as good as you,
    swear to you, who are no better than us,
    to accept you as our king and sovereign,
    provided you observe all our liberties and laws,
    but if not, not.”

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  11. CSK says:

    @JohnSF:
    I’ll defer to you on this. My knowledge of the history of England and Scotland is far, far greater than my knowledge of the history of Spain.

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  12. JohnSF says:

    @CSK:
    I don’t know that much re Spain; a bit about reconquista period; and then up to Philip II due to relation to Armada and Dutch Wars.
    But after Phil 2 it all seems to blur into a morass of inbred Hapsburgs named Phillip and Bourbons named Carlos.
    That oath always stuck in my memory though.
    Aragonese nobles were a prickly bunch.

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  13. Slugger says:

    In our country, we do seem to have entered an era of total war in politics where all means, by hook or by crook, are used gain and hold power no matter what. No one is willing to settle for half a loaf or even three quarters of a loaf; it’s the whole loaf or burn the house down. Democracy doesn’t work when no one is willing to concede ever. Our constitution is flawed; Trump never won the election. He lost the popular vote both times. Actually, Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 by more than 1.5 million. Bush improved his standing by turning into a “ war President.” Trump tried to create a cultural war for the same purpose. The cultural war has not burned out as yet.
    Hey, give peace a chance.

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  14. Gustopher says:

    @Scott F.:

    With the filibuster restored to a tool of last resort rather than the defacto requirement for 60 votes it currently is, the hodgepodge of a $3.5T bill wouldn’t have to be done in reconciliation.

    Perhaps if we took a finger for each filibuster… This would also be a way to ensure term limits. “I don’t know, Four-Finger Frank had our back on more than a handful of issues last term, but I don’t think he can keep it up.”

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @Slugger:

    Our constitution is flawed; Trump never won the election. He lost the popular vote both times.

    I don’t think it is safe to project the popular vote in our system to the popular vote in a system where the popular vote might matter. California Republicans and Idaho likely don’t turn out in as large of numbers as they would under a popular vote system.

    I think your critique is a better critique of our democracy’s legitimacy than of Trump’s legitimacy.

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  16. wr says:

    @JohnSF: “Mises, is to use the technical phrase favoured by historians, talking crap”

    Maybe that’s why JKB always quotes from century old writing…

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  17. JohnSF says:

    @wr:
    If he thinks the stink has gone because it’s dried up, he’s mistaken, as far as I’m concerned.

    Besides, if he’s going to quote someone who was a bit fascist-curious, he could at least try someone interesting, like Santayana or Pareto rather than a rather turgid Austrian economist.
    (OK, sometimes von Mises is interesting in a “how to tie yourself up in intellectual knots” kind of way)

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  18. Christine says:

    I am plain tired of hearing about Democrats having a majority in the Senate. 50 +1 is a theoretical majority, that is not how any of this works anymore, if ever. Until the filibuster is removed, Democrats only control the Presidency and the House.
    Please stop with this nonsense.

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  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JKB:

    The Social Democrats were democratic only so long as they were not the ruling party

    One of the difficulties of citing a source like von Mies is that a large number of his assertions, such as the one above, are made without supporting evidence (at least in the cherry picked passages his fanbois select to quote). It may well be that the quoted statement represents the conventional wisdom of the time. It may be that it was so self-evident in 1927 that it required no support (but I doubt it). It could be that von Mies was a scoundrel who was trying to pass off a notion that he had constructed out of 100% extra fine grade whole cloth. It could be that he really really believed that this was the case even though there was no evidence to look to for validation (his theory that when reality doesn’t conform to the economic models that reality is defective lends credence to this theory, btw). It could be that people even back in 1927 with moderate levels of education read statements like the quoted one and rolled their eyes. And I suppose that there are lots of other potential explanations–or at least a few. The point of my digression is to note that almost 100 years later, many people are incapable of analyzing what the fork von Mies was talking about when he said “The Social Democrats blah blah blah.” And JKB is more than likely one of those many. (Or he could fool me completely by showing evidence that would validate the assertion. But I won’t hold my breath waiting.)

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  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Misspelled “von Mises.” Must do better.

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  21. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    There were quite a lot of conservatives of various kinds who thought the fascists were a bulwark against Bolshevism.
    And to be fair, the Bolsheviks were morally foul; it took a good while for people to realise that the fascists were even worse.
    (And some even longer, if ever, to appreciate that the bolsheviks gave them a run for their money.)

    Such failures, in 1927, may perhaps be excused. Lets not forget, at that time the main reference was Italian fascism; a rather different beast to nazism, though quite unpleasant enough.

    Churchill for instance was ambivalent about the fascists until after the rise of Hitler.
    And von Mises, being Jewish, was probably a tad deceived as to the depth of anti-semitism in German fascism, or he may have been a bit more concerned.
    And in fact as an Austro-fascist (maybe) and Habsburg revanchist (definitely) he disliked north German nazism on principle.
    To be fair, von Mises unlike some of his American acolytes does not appear to have been markedly racist.

    But to slide past their failures now is to fail to examine clearly the presumptions which made them sympathetic to fascism as a fallback,
    And in the case of von Mises, his clear animus against socialism in any form whatsoever, which persisted well after western democratic socialism clearly showed themselves as enemies of both bolshevist Communism and fascisms.

    Hence the communist quip from the 1950’s about their position as “premature anti-fascists”.
    Which is itself hugely hypocritical given that the last group to oppose confronting fascism were the Communists from 1939 to 1941.
    An episode that has tended to get brushed under the carpet of history, and really deserves to be taken out of the cupboard and given a good kicking more often.

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  22. JohnSF says:

    Well, just looking up some references and find Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie is on sale at Amazon UK for £1.99!
    That’s my next reading sorted out.

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  23. Matt Bernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Counter-point: a lot of social democratic parties have governed democratically in the post-war period.

    Wait, are you saying that someone who based his ideas on a political theorist from *checks notes* 1927 isn’t accurately commenting on the last 94 years of European History?!

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  24. James Joyner says:

    @Slugger:

    Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 by more than 1.5 million

    He lost by 0.5 million. Unlike Trump in 2016, there’s a reasonable argument he could have won the popular vote if he’d campaigned under those rules. (Then again, it’s quite possible that some of the nearly 3 million Nader voters wouldn’t have cast a protest vote in a close election under that system.)

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