Monday, December 21, 2009

Democracy Is So Ugly

Honore Daumier, The Legislative Belly

I suppose the reason I am raising two cheers for the new health insurance bill is because I've had a little experience trying to get some kind of change, some improvement, through politics. It is so very hard. On both occasions, I was on the losing side trying to fight from a position of weakness. We tried our best in both efforts and ended up with nothing in one campaign, and slightly more than nothing in the second. The first occasion was an effort to unionize a single store of a large bookstore chain. We won the union election and got creamed in contract negotiations. All the company had to do was sit back and wait us out. They conceded absolutely nothing.
The second occasion was more complicated and uglier. I was involved in a fight over who is supposed to manage the building where I have my studio. That fight lasted many years, involved all kinds of corruption, competing city politicians and developers, then turned into a nasty ethnic brawl, and finally ended in a court case which the artists ultimately lost. After all those years and all that work, we extracted a few tiny little concessions to keep the whole thing from being a total disaster.

The United States is an oligarchy. It's an oligarchy where money rules and makes the law. We have a genuine democratic structure, but it is hollowed out by powerful interests who figured out a long time ago how to game the system to their advantage. As David Rockefeller is alleged to have said, only small businesses don't like government. Big businesses use it to their advantage in everything from government contracts to regulatory legislation to eminent domain.
The remarkable thing about the health insurance bill is that it was negotiated all along from a position of weakness. Yes, the voters liked that idea in 2008, and that's not nothing, but it's not enough. All the real power, the money, the infrastructure, the vested interests, the bureaucratic inertia, was against this bill -- and any reform bill -- all along. The opposition pulled out every parliamentary and demagogic tactic to stop it and to gut it. That anything positive at all got through that sausage mill is amazing.

I remember talking to someone who worked in a minor role in the Clinton White House. He said that Washington DC is about things that need so urgently to be done, with 25 lawyers explaining to you why you can't do anything.

Even where democracies are not so thoroughly corrupted, as is ours, democracy is an ugly, frustrating, and disappointing business. And as everyone from Thucydides to John Adams pointed out, democracies are extremely vulnerable to demagoguery and manipulation. Few things on this planet are more fickle and volatile than public opinion. Demagogues from Creon to Joe McCarthy have always counted on that fact. Let's not forget that the Nazis were legitimately elected in 1932. Jim Crow laws were popular and could have easily survived any popular referendum -- and not just in the South.

Democracy is very rarely about those triumphant moments where what is right and just prevail. More often than not, it is about committees trying to work out agreements that no one likes but everyone can live with between competing interests. Despised and reviled partisanship is a fact of democracy. Frequently, there are 2 or 3 completely different philosophies of life fighting each other for power. Democracy gives those irreconcilable philosophies a place to compete for public opinion, and for power, without having to shoot at each other. Where there is no dissent, no partisanship, then chances are there is no democracy. Tyrants love bipartisanship.

The enduring strength of democracy is the idea that people can influence the the decisions of their communities within a legal framework. They may be disappointed at the outcome of elections, but they shouldn't have to worry about being arrested in the middle of the following night. Democracies make the best use of human beings as they are with all their competing desires and ambitions, their clashing personalities, their creativity and innovation, their greed and cowardice, their moments of shining courage and compassion, their tendency to pick their noses and scratch their butts. There is no such thing as "Democratic Man" like there was "Socialist Man," "Capitalist Man." or any other species of "New Man" from the past century. There are no "untried ideals." They've all been tried.

All those noble efforts to clean up human nature end up like this:

If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country. ... The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny. Is force only intended to protect crime? Is not the lightning of heaven made to blast vice exalted?

--Robespierre in 1794.

That should sound very familiar to all of us who lived through the 20th century.

Death Mask of Robespierre


kishnevi said...

Doug, remember that (to a degree) the Founders thought that this sort of gridlock was a feature, not a bug. In their eyes, government inaction was generally a good thing, and therefore they tried to arrange matters so everyone had a chance to block any proposed governmental action. Only if it was something that almost everyone thought was clearly needed would government be able to act.

And the system worked for a long time. But the reason it worked is the reason it doesn't work very well now. Back then, the people who needed to agree were much more homogenous and more likely to see things the same way; there wasn't the diversity of our modern era. And the people who needed to agree were not oligarchs: but they represented a far more limited slice of the human race: adult male property owners of (usually) British descent. (Always remember that the first great revolution in the road to democracy was not giving the vote to women or to blacks, but giving the vote to men who had little or no property (land or income).) So it was easier to come to an agreement.

Nowadays, the very diversity of this country means that agreement is that much harder to come by.

Counterlight said...

"Always remember that the first great revolution in the road to democracy was not giving the vote to women or to blacks, but giving the vote to men who had little or no property (land or income"

Indeed, but propertyless white males became legally enfranchised with the same legislation that made citizens out of black males, the 14th Amendment. It took a civil war to finally break the exclusive hold on power of the white male property owning class whether they were Southern planters or Northern industrialists.
Very soon after the war, the plutocrats who ruled the first Gilded Age figured out how to use that new expanded democracy to their advantage through a combination of bribery, demagoguery (especially on matters of race), and intimidation. Was any President of the USA between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as powerful as J.P. Morgan? Heads of foreign governments would do their business with him and visit the President as a courtesy. Morgan had more assets and was the biggest landowner and employer in the United States including the Federal Government (which includes the military). Unlike the Federal Government, no one voted for JP Morgan. Morgan, like Marx, opposed unfettered market competition. He was more in favor of a kind of monopolistic corporate paternalism, and he almost got his way.

Indeed, gridlock was originally conceived as a positive feature. The founding fathers believed strongly in limiting the power of government (and to limit the power of people behind government like David Rockefeller).
Even though "statist" is the term of abuse that libertarians love to throw at progressives, the progs want limits on government power as much as libertarians; only for progs it's limits on the power of government to start war, to snoop into people's mail and bedrooms, to seize their persons and property without due process, to shut down dissenting views, and to abuse and kill people in the name of state security (think Guantanamo).
And progressives always suspect the government of bad faith, of being bought and paid for by the big money at the expense of the voters.

I look at Dick Cheney's fan base congratulating him on all of his extralegal activities to "keep us all safe" and I wonder who's the real "statist" here.

kishnevi said...

Actually, property qualifications for the vote were gradually discarded before the Civil War; I'm fairly certain that by 1860 any white male who could prove citizenship and local residency was able to vote. A parallel process was taking place in the UK, but I think took longer. IIRC, the last property qualifications fell under Disraeli (the Tory!) in the 1870s.

As for limits on government power: libertarians want the same limits as progressives do, but also a bunch more. It's the "conservatives", not we libertarians, who are cheering Darth Cheney.
The actual libertarian view is that government power in general needs to be limited: the power to regulate economics is philosophically the same power to violate civil liberties: it's the government telling you what it wants you to do whether you like it or not, and whether it is objectively good or not.
There are three further insights that lie behind libertarian thinking on this subject.
1)It's easy for established interests (including large corporations) to co-opt regulatory bodies for their own ends, so the regulations come to be written for the benefit of the co-opting businesses and not for the public at large. (I'm pretty sure you agree with that one, at least.)
2) Government operates through bureaucracy, and is therefore inherently inefficent and subject to abuse of power.
3) Even if a regulation is just and necesssary, to properly enforce it ultimately depends on the government routinely violating civil liberties. Think of the War on Drugs or the bureacratic tyranny-nanny state the UK seems keen on becoming.

Counterlight said...

Would Adam Smith pass the libertarian test? I doubt it.
He believed that a certain measure of taxation and regulation were necessary for the good of society. He also believed that labor had a right to bargain collectively.

He was a pragmatist, not an ideologue.

There is the ancient Greek idea (which underlies all modern constitutions) that those who enjoy the protections of the polis, and benefit from its privileges, have the duty to maintain it and to defend it. Pericles said that a man who has only private business has no business at all. The Athenians believed that citizens in a democracy had the duty to govern it, maintain it, and defend it. The people are the government, as far as the ancient Athenians were concerned. If people refused to govern, then there was anarchy, or there was tyranny. An inhabitant that benefits from a host without contributing anything to the health of the host is a parasite.