Democracy and Other Oddities

I haven’t had a chance to talk about Peter Orszag’s much-insulted TNR piece about getting beyond gridlock, but for those who really want to delve into it I’ll recommend Matt Glassman’s exceedingly long but mostly quite interesting discussion of democracy that’s more or less a response to it.

I’ll make a couple of fairly quick points…

As regular readers could guess, my favorite point Glassman makes is that “There’s an important distinction between democracy and majoritarianism.” Quite true. The way that I put it is I think a bit different than how Glassman explains it, however. In my view, majoritiarianism is a type of democracy, and rarely if ever the best one; you may recall that I’ve frequently quoted Hannah Arendt on this:

…we commonly equate and confound majority rule with majority decision. The latter, however, is a technical device…In America, at any rate [the Constitution was] framed with the express and conscious intention to prevent, as far as humanly possible, the procedures of majority decisions from generating into the “elective despotism” of majority rule (On Revolution, 164-165, or at least it was in the old editions).

It’s probably true that when we don’t use majority decision (as in, for example, filibusters in the Senate) we should have some sort of explanation for why the alternative process is more, or at least equally, democratic. But they can’t rest on an assumption that majorities should inherently win in all democracies, because that’s simply not so.

On the practical side of things…Orszag calls for more automatic processes, which is  really a non-issue as far as democracy is concerned. The other is for Congress to more frequently use independent boards similar to the Base Closing mechanism that was generally regarded as a success. I don’t think that’s problematic in terms of democracy either, but the record on this is clear: independent commissions are useful only in cases in which politicians agree on what should be done but do not want the credit for doing it. It’s possible that these commissions are under-utilized by Congress right now, but mostly for relatively small and technical things. You’re not going to get a Grand Bargain out of a commission unless leading politicians from both sides secretly want a Grand Bargain on similar terms in the first place, and that’s not the case right now — but if it was, I don’t see that it’s democratically suspect. I am, however, a whole lot less comfortable about using the Fed as a model for new policy-making bodies.

Again, I recommend Glassman’s piece. I don’t think I agree with all of it, but it’s a good introduction to most of the relevant issues.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.