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Too Much Democracy?

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books and culture

Too Much Democracy?

A new book argues that the problem with the U.S. political system is not insufficient participation but weakened parties. March 1, 2019
Politics and law

Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself, by Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro (Yale University Press, 336 pp., $28)

Observers of the current political scene warn that liberal democracy is in crisis, and that fascism or authoritarianism lurk around the corner. Contrary to such dire predictions, Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro, distinguished political science professors at Yale, argue that it isn’t democracy that’s in crisis, but rather, political parties. Rosenbluth and Shapiro point to the paradoxical truth that “hierarchical parties are vital for a healthy democracy.” Since the 1960s, social movements have sought “decentralizing” reforms to bring politics closer to the people. Changes have included the adoption of primaries and local caucuses to choose candidates, as well as direct-democracy measures, such as the initiative and referenda, to let citizens vote directly on public policy. Rather than increase satisfaction with government, however, devolving politics to the grassroots has increased “voter alienation” and fed “political dysfunction,” the authors argue, while weakening the ability of the parties to mediate between citizens and government.

Against these trends, Rosenbluth and Shapiro argue that the best system is one with two big, disciplined, hierarchical, and competitive parties. This “Westminster model,” with its roots in England, is characterized by single-member districts, first-past-the-post elections, and the delegation of power from members of Parliament to the party leadership. Rosenbluth and Shapiro see the Westminster model as best designed to produce “policies that serve the long-run interests of most voters” because under its terms, the parties campaign in competitive elections on clear platforms written by leaders who have the power to enact those platforms into law—should they win.

Two-party systems create durable relationships with voters, with party identifications becoming “more like marriages,” the authors say; by contrast, weak-party or multiparty systems produce coalitions that act “more like hookups.” Voters can express their preferences at the ballot, but they have no idea what coalition of parties will form the government after the election or the mix of policies that it will pursue. “Parties that are broad-gauged, encompass an electoral majority, and disciplined enough to enforce majority-enhancing deals,” the authors conclude, “are as good as we can get in a democracy.”

Like the United Kingdom, the United States has two big parties. But the authors worry that today’s Republican and Democratic parties are too weak. The misguided reforms of recent decades have something to do with that weakness, but so does the U.S. Constitution. An independently elected president, staggered electoral cycles, federalism, and bicameralism prevent the concentration of political power. Consequently, though members of each party regularly vote together in Congress, creating the appearance of unity and discipline, American parties have “great difficulty coalescing around programmatic policies, and even greater difficulties in implementing them.” Party unity on roll-call votes has more to do with political positioning to fend off primary challenges than with crafting public policy. If the test of party strength is the ability to pass legislation, then American parties are anemic. Most laws passed in Washington receive substantial bipartisan support—and bipartisanship is just “another label for deal making in the absence of a clear partisan program.” Voter frustration is predictable in a system where primaries push candidates to the extremes but the imperatives of legislating force them to the center, and even into compromises with the other party.

Yet multiparty systems elsewhere show little evidence of being a better alternative. Rosenbluth and Shapiro contend that what is commonly regarded as the strength of Nordic countries’ multiparty, proportional-representation systems—that they enhance representation at the ballot box—may instead be a drawback. Without cultural unity and economic prosperity, such systems can easily fragment, leaving openings for extremists on the left and right. Nordic party systems owe their success to a confluence of events in the postwar years that produced “manufacturing-based prosperity sufficient to fund both job stability and generous social insurance.” Since then, however, declines in manufacturing employment and increased immigration “may have pulled the lynchpin that held that Jenga tower in place.” In proportional-representation systems, they contend, deindustrialization and mass migration lead to party fragmentation, opening the door to chauvinistic populism.

Germany’s party system is a hybrid, based on a combination of proportional lists and single-member districts, but it too seems likely to struggle with the decline of manufacturing employment. As the number of workers with good jobs has shrunk, a growing group of marginalized workers seeks more radical political options. “The danger,” the authors warn, “not only for Social Democrats but for all of Germany, is that once unions fall below a critical mass, the cohesion of the German left gives way.” And without the discipline of a party organization to hold things in place, “disaffection can easily move far left as far right.”

Rosenbluth and Shapiro rightly warn that we should be “worried by the trend in many democracies to weaken the intermediary role of political parties.” Reforms designed to encourage political participation, enhance representation, and facilitate direct democracy have made matters worse. They are correct to highlight the tendency to destroy political parties from within by trying to “improve” them because “voters see the results of weak parties and respond by seeking to weaken them further.”

Some of their arguments deserve some skepticism, though. It’s dubious that “good public policy” should be the sole criterion on which to evaluate a party system. Rosenbluth and Shapiro see Britain as a “well governed country,” with “national health insurance, good public education, environmental protection, and economic dynamism.” If only America had stronger parties, then it, too, could have the National Health Service, they write—not a prospect that everyone will find enticing. And the U.S. might need to give up on the Constitution to do it.

Rosenbluth and Shapiro assume that they know what “good policy” is, but their arguments show a troubling circularity, in which the “long run interests of most voters most of the time” turns out to align with the familiar “market capitalism with a robust welfare state.” But hasn’t such policy centrism contributed to our current predicament? Whether their suggested reforms could gain any traction is unclear at best. They concede that “reversing changes that were adopted in the name of democracy is hard,” but that’s an understatement. In the U.S. such efforts run headlong into constitutional barriers. And regardless of the wisdom of some of their proposals, almost all of them run counter to the contemporary egalitarian spirit and would quickly be labeled elitist, anti-democratic, unrepresentative—or worse.

Unfortunately, Rosenbluth and Shapiro’s call for reformers to give up on current decentralizing strategies is likely to fall on deaf ears. The “problem” with democracy is that it democratizes—even to the point of destroying the conditions for its functioning. This would explain why so many people in Western democracies seem more willing to give up on democracy entirely than to endorse reforms that could be labeled un-democratic. Nonetheless, Rosenbluth and Shapiro make a powerful case for why we should favor big, strong political parties to maintain a healthy democracy.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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