Monday, January 11, 2010

So, What Am I Afraid Of?

So, given that democracies die when polarization gets out of hand, and given that I am warning about the dangers of out of control polarization, am I actually afraid that our democracy is in danger of dying? The answer has to be no, but . . .

Although polarization is the underlying disease that destroys democracy, the ultimate failure can take place in many ways -- an undemocratic party controlling the levers of power and subverting the system from within, civil war, military coup, foreign invasion of a country weakened by division, and any combination of the above. I do not see any of these as being in the cards. So I have long been asking myself, "Then what are you afraid of?" Paul Krugman (and others following his lead) finally offered the answer -- Californication. The danger we face is not the overthrow of our government or the complete breakdown of democracy, so much as government and democracy becoming dysfunctional to the point of being non-functional.

Krugman focuses on the danger of a permanent Republican minority. Extremism may shrink the Republican Party enough that it can never win a majority, but not too small to block the majority from taking action. This is the pattern in California. Worse yet, a party that knows it will never hold actual power is relieved from any actual responsibility. It can feel free to wreck things as much as possible, knowing that the dominant party will be blamed. Or, in the words of Matthew Yglesias:

You can have a system in which a defeated minority still gets a share of governing authority and participates constructively in the victorious majority’s governing agenda, shaping policy around the margins in ways more to their liking. Or you can have a system in which a defeated minority rejects the majority’s governing agenda out of hand, seeks opening for attack, and hopes that failure on the part of the majority will bring them to power. But right now we have both simultaneously. It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure. It’s insane, and it needs to be changed.
In California, the minority's ability to block action takes the form of the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget. In the federal government, it takes the form of the filibuster. I am still not clear when it became the rule that to pass legislation, the dominant party must have not only a majority in both houses, but a super-majority in the Senate. Scholars of the filibuster say it did not happen overnight. The filibuster was invoked for 8% of all legislation in the 1960's, 27% in the 1980's, and 70% in the 2007-2008 Congress. In Lyndon Johnson's time, it was assumed that Medicare could pass by a 55-45 vote. Another Senate observer believes that pure obstructionism began with the Clinton healthcare bill in 1994.

Speaking as a casual observer, I remember that the Senate was divided 50-50 following the 2000 election and the general assumption was that in case of a tie, Dick Cheney would cast the deciding vote. No one suggested that legislation was impossible because the Republicans did not have a 60 vote majority. Yet when the Democrats won Congress in 2006, reporters casually spoke of a 60-vote majority being required to pass legislation. They did not report on Republican invocation of the 60-vote rule for 70% of all legislation as extraordinary because they did not see it that way. And with healthcare legislation, reporters have made amply clear that requiring a 60-vote majority is the "ordinary" way of doing things and passing legislation by a simple majority is an extraordinary measure, sometimes referred to at the "Armageddon option."

Paralysis of the legislature endangers democracy in other ways as well. Presidents have long tended to act through executive decree if Congress proved unwilling to give them what they want. This does grave damage to democracy if it is simply a matter of the President and Congress pursuing different agendas. But if Congress becomes paralyzed and legislation impossible, but President may have little choice. A paralyzed Congress, IOW, can encourage an already dangerous slide toward elective dictatorship.

And these are only the dangers we face if the current polarization makes Republicans lose. Krugman briefly touches on the alternative. The Tea Party movement has no positive program, except, perhaps, tax cuts. Otherwise it is driven by incoherent rage at government and shows no interest dealing with the real world, let alone governing. What if that makes the Republicans win?

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