The Future of American Democracy Foundation
From the book Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale University Press, January 2006).
By Alan Wolfe
Reviews of the book
A startling, devastating critique of contemporary American democracy from one of the countrys most measured and respected social and political thinkers." -Thomas E. Mann , The Brookings Institution
"Alan Wolfe, always a keen analyst of the American scene, presents a compelling and often passionate account of how to restore genuine democracy in America." - Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds
"Wolfe is the most interesting public intellectual in the country. His disturbing book provides rich food for thought about the future of our polity." - Sanford Levinson, University of Texas Law School
"Alan Wolfe argues that while the extent of American democracy has increased greatly, its quality has declined notably in recent decades. His book, Does American Democracy Still Work?, will be widely read, ardently debated, and highly influential." - Martin Shefter, Cornell University
Struggles over American democracy were easier to understand in the nineteenth and twentieth century than they have become in the twenty-first. Then, privileged eliteswould-be aristocrats in the North, slaveholders in the South, the wealthy everywhereopposed democracy, and for the simplest of motivations: the more restricted the franchise, the greater the likelihood these elites would hold on to their unfairly gained advantages. For the same reason, if in reverse, groups marginalized by the priorities of their eraworking people, women, racial minoritieswished democracy expanded to shift the benefits provided by government in their direction. In the old politics of democracy, the left spoke on behalf of the people, while the right tended to the business of the powerful. The differences between them were many, but they were mostly economic. Those who wanted to restrict the scope of politics, as E. E. Schattschneider pointed out in 1960, emphasized individualism, free private enterprise, localism, privacy, and economy in government, while those intent on expanding it insisted on equal protection of the laws, justice, liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and association, and civil rights.
One can still find traces of the old politics of democracy in American life. Liberals frequently insist that America is not democratic enough: many convicted felons are denied the suffrage; difficulties in obtaining citizenship render numerous immigrants unable to vote on matters affecting their lives; too many Americans who have the right to vote fail to exercise it; voting machines, let alone supposedly nonpartisan state officials, do not always work, especially in minority communities; some statesincluding Georgia, which recently passed a law requiring a drivers license or its equivalent in order to votehark back to the days when voting was more of a privilege than a right; the U.S. Constitution guarantees disproportionate numbers of U.S. Senate seats to states with small populations; and the electoral college has chosen the popular-vote loser too many times for anyones comfort. Clearly there is some justice in these claims; democratic institutions, for all their widespread appeal to contemporary Americans, rarely live up to the standard of one person, one vote.
In contrast to liberals, who traditionally have held to the conviction that more democracy is better democracy, the charge is sometimes launched by conservatives that America is too democratic for its own good; what is popular is not always what is right, they from time to time remind us, and a society that bases its most important decisions on what appeals to the lowest common denominator is likely to reach the wrong ones. For these traditionalists, democracy is inappropriate in any area of life, such as culture or religion, but it is especially wrong-headed in politics; in the extreme case, totalitarianism is not the opposite of democracy but the logical extension of populist instincts run wild. Conservative skeptics of democracy racy are unlikely to get much of a mass hearing for their claims; most media, including most forms of book publishing, appeal to the very popular taste that curmudgeons of this sort disdain. Still, no matter how democratic Americas institutions have become, skepticism on the right end of the political spectrum has not completely disappeared.
For all the talk of expanding democracy on one side and curtailing it on the other, however, the old politics of democracy no longer inspires much passion. Hindering the lefts case is the fact that democracy has gone about as far as it can go; now that nearly all adults have the right to vote, it is no longer possible to alter significantly todays political balance of power by trying to bring tomorrows new groups of players into the contest. Any proposed changes to make the Constitution more democratic, moreover, run up against the resistance of small states, which would lose power; even as committed an enthusiast of democracy as Robert A. Dahl concedes his measured pessimism when it comes to formal reforms that would make the United States a more democratic society. Denying those who wish to vote their right to do so is reason for indignation, but such incidents, even in todays highly polarized electoral climate, are more the exception than the rule. It can hardly be a coincidence that the left so often comes across as tired and defensive; it threw so much of its energy into gaining the right to vote that it does not know where to turn once the vote has been gained.
Conservatives, as it happens, no longer speak in the old language of democracy either. In sharp contrast to their previous skepticism toward the masses, conservatives today are engaged in a love fest of praise for ordinary people. For this, they can hardly be blamed; there areand for some time have beenmore conservatives than liberals in America, and even if it is also true that there are more moderates than both of them, the right-leaning political instincts of the American public constitute a brute fact that American liberals, perhaps for understandable reasons, have been reluctant to accept. American conservatives are not happy campers: looking out on the society in which they live, they see decadence all around them and, quick to identify themselves as victims, they claim, with greater and greater implausibility, that liberals still run the United States of America. But on the issue of democracy, the state of American public opinion offers conservatives undeniable advantages; American political history and culture are rich in democratic rhetoric, and the side that appeals convincingly to ordinary people will always have an advantage compared with the side that appeals to elites, tradition, leadership, habit, deference, restraint, rules, judges, or wisdom. Why, if you are a contemporary conservative, bite the hand that feeds you? Expanding the scope of the electorate once seemed a threat to your interests; now it seems the perfect way to get what you want.
The United States, in short, has entered into a new politics of democracy. Two features make the new politics of democracy different from earlier struggles over the extension of the franchise or debates over the purposes and reach of government. The first is that the major divisions between left and right are not over economics but, as the frequently used term culture war implies, over moral and religious issues. The second is that the side that winsmost frequently in contemporary politics, the right sideis the one that best frames its appeals in the language of populism.
Neither moralism nor populism is new in American public life; if anything, both of them have been prominent features of American politics since the nineteenth century. The Civil War was, in large part, a bitter conflict over moral values framed, on both sides, by the language of religion. Late-nineteenth century politics not only featured a Populist Party but was dominated by the three presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, who defined the very meaning of populism. Yet moralism and populism, at least until very recently, rarely worked together. At the time of the Civil War, the majority of Americans did not have the right to vote (one reason the war was fought in the first place), placing severe limits on how populistic the crusades around it could be. And Bryans populist presidential campaigns, which took the form of crusades, were primarily concerned with economic issues, such as the free coinage of silver and the tariff. Only with the arrival of the culture war in the 1970saccompanied by such democratizing features of American life as the increasing sophistication of polling and the spread of cable televisiondid moralism and populism work together to transform the very character of American democracy.
Both features of the new politics of democracy were, at least at first, fueled by the energies of the political left. This was certainly true of the culture war. Roe v. Wade (1973) or the U.S. Senates rejection of Robert Bork (1987) is often cited as the moment at which the culture war began; both events symbolized the willingness of the left to put moral issues front and center in American public attention. For numerous liberal political activists, the culture war was equivalent to a good business plan; they could raise money and energize supporters by proclaiming their steadfast devotion to a womans right to choose or their equally steadfast opposition to a theocracy led by a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson. To this day, a preference persists on the left for culture war politics; the moment a Republican president nominates a conservative judgeespecially one such as Samuel Alito, who, during his confirmation hearings for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, refused to concede that Roe v. Wade was settled lawliberal groups swing into determined opposition.
In the longer run, however, the culture war turned out to be a gift to the right. Even though public opinion is frequently not as hostile to a womans right to choose as those on the right convince themselves, conservatives are far more likely to win elections by emphasizing their religious faith and strong sense of right and wrong than they are by insisting on their relatively unpopular budgetary nostrums, such as increasing spending on Artic oil drilling while reducing it for first responders. It was, after all, not only Democrats who brought up the subject of abortion during the hearings to confirm Samuel Alito; Republican Senators such as Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Sam Brownback of Kansas did so as well, and truth be told, in their opposition to Roe v. Wade they showed far more passion than did Democrats, whose support for a womans right to choose, especially in comparison with the Bork hearings a decade and a half earlier, seemed not only less demagogic but more perfunctory.
The passion of Senators Coburn and Brownback reflects a political reality in which Republicans have taken the lead in talking about stem cells, God, and the culture of life, while Democrats want politics to focus on such policy-wonkish issues as the minimum wage or global warming. Especially on Fox News, the television station most closely guided by conservative talking points, liberals are routinely portrayed as out to destroy Christmas, keep God out of the schools and off the coins, and wield the club of political correctness to deny conservatives their rights to free speech. Even foreign policy issues are treated by Republicans in culture war terms; instead of speaking as a realist in the aftermath of September 11, President Bush presented global conflict as a struggle between good and evil. And as befits a foreign policy steeped in moral language, he relied extensively on the emotion of fear to justify programs, such as unauthorized wiretapping or extensive executive power, that might otherwise be viewed as violations of civil liberty or attacks on the principle of separation of powers.
Such culture war appeals do not always work to the benefit of Republicans and conservatives. Despite the rights effort to rally the country around the cause of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead Florida woman, few Americans seemed interested in transforming her tragic situation into a political football. No moral crusading, moreover, whether involving the right to life in domestic politics or the evils of terrorism in foreign policy, helped Mr. Bush as his popularity waned in his second term. Still, even if increasingly ineffective, culture war issues are unlikely to disappear so long as Republicans rely on their conservative Christian base to win elections, a reliance that shows no sign of receding.
The second distinguishing characteristic of the new politics of democracy, the reliance on the rhetoric and techniques of populism, also originally appealed to the left before being adopted by the right. Certainly few presidents have been as sensitive to the realities of polling, and the need to fashion policies to accord with what polling reveals about public opinion, than Bill Clinton. And he is by no means alone; future Democratic candidates will surely seek ways to frame issues by trying to make them more acceptable to the public; indeed, framing has become a buzzword attached to liberals as they seek to recover some of the political popularity they have lost. In this they have at least one advantage: Republicans and conservatives frequently manifest an undemocratic side by maintaining strong ties to corporate interests, by asserting that there exists a unitary executive with the authority to ignore legislation duly passed by Congress, and by insisting to an unusual degree upon secrecy in government. Americans are not exactly thrilled by the elitist side of Republican policies, and when that party responds to big business with unstinting largesse, it enables Democrats to claim, at least in economic terms, the populistic language that Republicans ignore.
Yet one of the most marked features of recent American politics is the extent to which populist language and tactics have worked to benefit the right. Reversing two hundred years of political rhetoric, liberals are denounced by conservatives as members of a privileged class, aristocratic in their tastes, contemptuous of the choices of ordinary people, determined to protect their effete lifestyles at all costs, and committed to obtaining their unpopular (and unworkable) objectives through the most undemocratic means available, while conservativesor so the story continuesspeak to the heartfelt convictions of ordinary people for a return to traditional morality, strong and stable families, and God-fearing American patriotism. In the new politics of democracy, even Straussian political philosophers, long known as unabashed elitists, call for democracy in far away places such as Iraq. So widespread is this populist reflex that it has been adopted by the most undemocratic institution in the modern world; John L. Allen, a keen observer of the Vatican, has written of the degree to which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, sees himself not as an inquisitor but as a tribune, protecting ordinary Catholics from intellectual abuse by self-appointed elites.
No wonder that George W. Bush, for all his talk of ignoring polls, was as relentless in following public opinion, and allowing itself to be guided by it, as Bill Clinton. Republicans may be elitist when it comes to rewarding their privileged constituencies or protecting the powers of the president, but when the focus is on emotional and moral issues, whether the subject involves crime, religion, or national security, they are as populistic in their language as any nineteenth-century advocate for free silver. Republicans were able to gain control over all three branches of government in the early years of the twentieth century for a reason; they became the more popular party because they became the more populistic party. For conservatives these days, democratic sentiment has become the ultimate trump card for a political ideology that originated as a check on democratic sentiment.
The new politics of democracy constitutes a major turning point in American political history. My business is not predicting political contests, and I have no way of knowing whether conservatives will continue their political dominance or be voted out of office by an electorate that, in the wake of indictments, scandals, unchecked executive power, high energy prices, slow job growth, an unsuccessful war, and revelations of stunning incompetence in the wake of natural disasters, suddenly discovers that perhaps liberalism was not such a bad thing. (This book is being written before the Congressional midterm elections of 2006, in which the Democrats mayor, then again, may notrecapture one or both houses of Congress). But whichever party governs the United States in the near future, the new politics of democracy is likely to dominate American public life for some time. Elections will be decided, media coverage determined, books written, and policies proposed, not on the basis of which coalitions of forces can bring ever newer groups of people to the polls based on their self-interest, but on the basis of which ones can mobilize those already present in the electorate by speaking to their longings (even as they seek to demobilize those likely to vote against them). The old politics of democracy frequently lacked excitement even though it offered stability. The new politics of democracy is nothing if not exciting, even if the costs are frequent polarization, deadlock, vituperation, and extremism.
The new politics of democracy has been roughly forty years in the making. Conservatives were weak to the point of ridicule after Barry Goldwaters defeat and Lyndon Johnsons victory in 1964, while liberals were strong to the point of arrogance. By 2004 those positions had been reversed: conservatives could barely restrain their triumphalism, and liberals found themselves in the unusual role of being an opposition party.
If the original democratic energy came from the left, it would more than spill over to benefit the right. Over the longer haul, conservatives simply outhustled liberals. They developed better political networks. They won important wars of ideas. Their sense of purpose was stronger and their determination remarkable. If they could not take over institutions dominated by liberals and moderates, they created their own, run by conservatives. Churches that evangelized in search of new members with spirit and enthusiasm grew; those that emphasized theological liberalism and more staid forms of worship did not. With the (significant) exception of California, states that once had weak political parties and histories of direct democracy turned right; those that had more established parties run by elites stayed left. Regions of the country that were gaining residents became Republican; those losing them were more likely to be Democratic. In the wake of this great conservative success, liberals who believe in the necessity of political organizing look to the rise of the conservative movement to find what is missing on their own side of the political ledger.
If democracy consisted only in the desire of people to express what is on their minds and the willingness of their leaders to respond to those desires, American democracy today would be a cause for celebration. Populism, is here to stay. So successful have conservatives and Republicans been at claiming the populist mantle that Democrats and liberals feel little choice but to respond in kind; Bryans populism, once derided by historians on the left because of the Great Commoners stance during the Scopes trial, is now viewed sympathetically, his synthesis of economic justice and religious conviction offering an appealing formula for the contemporary Democratic Party. And it is not only in the United States where populism rules the roost; in 2005 voters in France and Holland made very clear the degree to which they opposed the plans for a European constitution advocated by their leaders. We live in democratic times, and this, as the British sociologist Frank Furedi has written, is bound to be uncomfortable for anyone claiming special wisdom, especially including intellectuals, who typically distrust populism because it allows so little space for them to use their presumably superior intelligence.
The most troubling question is whether the quality of democratic life has improved as the quantity of democratic life has expanded. Democracy, it is important to remember, does have qualitative dimensions as well as quantitative ones; its health is measured not only by how many are eligible to vote but by how many actually do, how much knowledge they bring to their decisions, how responsive they and their leaders are to the common good, whether their participation leaves them feeling satisfied or frustrated, the degree to which the decisions their leaders make are wise, the extent to which those leaders promote policies that advance social justice and strengthen the common good, and the ways in which politicians can be held accountable for the decisions they reach.
Americans should be as concerned about their democracys operations as they are proud of their democracys expansion. Although the formal right to vote is now nearly universal, Alexander Keyssar concludes, few observers would characterize the United States as a vibrant democracy, as a nation where the equality of political rights offers release to a host of engaged and diverse political voices. To Americas great credit, democracy exists, and any American can take advantage of its benefits. And to Americas great shame, all too many Americans have become passive spectators in the hurly-burly of democratic politics, unwilling to play much of a role in its operations, yet ever ready to complain when it fails to meet their needs.
As the war in Iraq ought to constantly remind us, democracy is too important a matter to be addressed through gotcha talking points. Had Americans in 2004 reelected the party that took their country into that war based on a solid understanding of the threat they faced and after a thoughtful consideration of the wars costs and benefits, we would be correct to conclude that the lives lost and shattered by the war, however tragic for the individuals and families involved, were justified in the name of a national objective; no better system than democracy has ever been invented for determining what those national objectives are and how they should be realized. But this is not what Americans did. Significant numbers of Americans voted for the war party based on the factually incorrect premises that Saddam Hussein was responsible for September 11 and that he possessed threatening weapons of mass destruction. Others agreed with some of their leaders who claimed, against all principles of democratic accountability, that support for the countrys troops did not permit critics of the war to have a hearing. Key information concerning the degree to which political ideology substituted for good intelligence in the build-up to the war was not revealed until after the reelection of those responsible for it. The actual details of the fightingbad decisions, dead bodies, the strength of the insurgencywere not reported by the media or were reported too late to have much of an impact. A poorly functioning democracy honors those who sacrifice their life for it less well than a richly working one. Politics involves serious stuff; trivializing it demeans all those affected by its affairs.
Improving the performance of American democracy will not be easy; the left, which says it would like to do so, lacks the power, while the right, which has the power, lacks the incentive. Yet America needs a democracy-protection movement just as it has an environmental protection movement. It is not just a matter of an electoral college that leads candidates to ignore states in which a large majority of Americans live, campaign finance practices that resemble extortion more than they embody free speech, media that protect those in power rather than they hold them responsible for their mistakes, and a Constitution that gives every voter in Wyoming roughly thirty-eight times the influence of every voter in New York State, although all those things are non-democratic enough. Even if every vote in presidential elections counted equally to every other one, and even if, by some miracle, the political and ideological composition of the U.S. Senate reflected the political and ideological composition of the United States, significant problems of quality control in American democracy would remain.
The question Americans face is not whether their society will be democratic but what kind of democracy it will be. And that is very much an open question. Under the twin pressures of culture war issues and populist politics, American democracy is undergoing significant changes that, unless corrected, threaten to undermine some of Americas most cherished values, including the liberal values that encourage robust debate, rely on the separation of powers, and recognize the need for a loyal opposition. There is a decided sickness in the American body politic these days which, if not cured, will produce an increasingly angry and divided political class, in the process alienating ever larger numbers of ordinary Americans who will turn away in disgust.
To avoid that fate, Americans are going to have to change their political ways. It is not the caseI wish it werethat voting out Republicans and voting in Democrats will automatically improve the quality of democratic life. Nor will the problems of democratic performance be solved if Congress cleans up its lobbying practices in the wake of the Jack Abram off scandal, once again turns to campaign finance reform, and resists efforts by the executive branch to aggrandize its power. To begin the process of healing their damaged political environment, Americans will have to pay more attention to the way their elections take place, their laws are passed, and their expectations are shaped. If they do not, American democracy, which in its greatest moments inspired people throughout the world, will lose its luster, destroy the hopes of its founders, and no longer stand as a model for other societies to emulate.