Revisiting The Democracy Wish

In his “Democracy Wish”, Monroe dedicates himself to answering the question of how our nation, so steadily  dreadful of a large and unaccountable government has ironically ended up with exactly what we – for all of our history – have tried to avoid. His answer to this unsettling question rests in the dissonance between the two traditions that have sculpted our political history. The “yearning” for people power on behalf of the civic republicans and the “dread” of public power on behalf of the classical liberals. According to Morone, this sort of cognitive dissonance, or better, Orwellian Doublethink, fused with the cyclical struggle between these traditions has resulted in a stalemate between them; a stalemate that has bequeathed neither a limited government nor a self-governed social democracy (thus both camps are displeased). Instead, we are left with a very unpopular congress and ever expansive federal government, comprised of unaccountable and dysfunctional institutions that are managed by unelected technocrats. Our “dense” government and its opaque Institutions take little thought into the opinions of every day citizens, and the participation of the citizenry in them is reduced to the trivial or non-existence. Morone’s insight is not in just identifying the existence of these two traditions, but in how the conflict between them through a vicious cycle, repeated time and time again, has given rise to our bloated bureaucratic state. Time and time again, the waves of uprising and populist reform from democratic wishing, is thwarted and sometimes beaten back by liberal “dread” (arising from both ideological and institutional forces) that manifest in larger bureaucracies, bloated government, which in turn dilute social transformation and muddle the will of the people.

To Monroe, American’s fear of public power (the dread) is to blame for the sorry state of things. For Morone, the overarching and dominate tenet of American political thought is the suspicion of large government (because government in any form has always been equated to an infringement of rights and liberties – albeit that our history is littered with examples of the federal government intervening to protect these rights and liberties). Since our nation’s founding the “dread” of government, along with its denial of authority to political leaders can be found in the ideology of the body politic, and in the anti-democratic design of the American government.

A central argument that Morone makes in achieving the stronger democracy he is calling for begins with   American’s  moving beyond our ideological fear of public power, and reforming and updating the fragmented (checks and balances) design of the Hamiltonian and Madisonian government . For he believes that the political architecture laid out in the federalist papers favors complacency and gridlock, and prevents the big and necessary changes from happening.  Thus, both a paradigm shift in our ideology and a reform of our government structure is needed if we are to ever have a government capable of resolving the collective actions problems that we face today (like climate change, health care).

In arguing this point, Monroe is aligning himself with a critique that is common amongst more “yearning” leaning historians and political thinkers. These individuals charge the federalist government established in the constitution as being aristocratic, and claim that the document itself was intended to put a check on democracy and deliver power to the “elite moneyed interests”.  Or as Madison defined them in the Constitutional convention – “the wealth of the nation”. To this crowd America is not a democracy, and nor was it ever intended to be, and technically speaking they are correct. In fact, the government established by the constitution is not a democracy but a “polyarchy”, in which most power has both historically and presently resided within the moneyed elite(Although this is not mandated in law-like the English nobility- it has just always been the case, and for obvious reasons). Not only were the most powerful positions in our national government reserved for some of the richest men in our nation(George Washington-the richest man in the nation at the time became our first president- fast forward to today were over 90% of congressman and senators are millionaires) , but the design itself had many checks on democracy. For instance, suffrage was granted to only white male property owners. The most powerful branch of the legislature was the senate – the branch that is the most removed from the people (and in the constitution senators were not elected directly by the people but through state legislatures). According to Madison, the intention of this design was to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”.

The intent of the federalist design was quite clear, the rebellious and independent farmers had to be taught that the ideals of the revolutionary pamphlets were not to be taken seriously, and the common people were not to be represented by countrymen like themselves. And not surprisingly, the fruition of such a design is a government completely oblivious to public opinion (as one study found here demonstrates that the popular will has statistically no input on public policy –)

I found Morone’s “Democracy Wish” to be very instructive after studying the conflict between the Anti- Federalists and the Federalists; I say that because Morone’s central argument seems to embody both traditions. His call for a more participatory and direct democracy is in part a Thomas Paine-Thomas Jefferson plea for civic republicanism, while his appeal to a stronger central government is a Hamiltonian plea for federalism. I am very sympathetic to his suggestion to rethink the design of our federal government, and his desire to infuse our institutions with more workable forms of popular participation and substantial democratic politics- I have always been sympathetic to the notion that democracy does not end at the ballot box, and as citizens we should play an active role in the shaping of policies and institutions that effect our lives. Although I would lament that Morone is rather insufficient to the details of exactly what the contours of these participatory institutions would look like, and instead offers rather vague calls for more communitarian populism. How would they be less technocratic and more representative?  When citizens are brought “indoors”, how would the functioning of government change? I do see some appeal in having qualified individuals presiding over our institutions – I don’t want Joe the plumber running the EPA or the department of education. The fundamental question is what these new institutions will look like in practice? Similarly, his call for a more “centered” instead of “dense” government is a little vague as well, the thought of an even more powerful state with 21st century technology is rather scary without sufficient details and caveats.

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6 Responses to Revisiting The Democracy Wish

  1. pooh0bear8 says:

    Found your thoughts well explored, and insightful in meaning thank you for the post.

    “Not only were the most powerful positions in our national government reserved for some of the richest men in our nation(George Washington-the richest man in the nation at the time became our first president- fast forward to today were over 90% of congressman and senators are millionaires) , but the design itself had many checks on democracy.”

    I personally believe that strikes at the core flaw in the American political system today. Don’t have the source, but a year or two ago I was listening to a think tank panel discuss the American political climate today, and one the panelist silence the whole room with one line. Paraphrasing ‘What is difference between China and United States’s political structure? I don’t see any difference. In China the party chooses their President, and in the United States the candidate with the most funds is chosen; where the difference?’

    Your view with citizens should play larger role in their community is one I imagine the majority of the populist feels too, but as your Washington Times article suggest the people have resigned elites that control their income. May the majority take their country back one day without violence, but history will suggest otherwise.

  2. nicmccaleb says:

    Very good post, I really agree with the idea that our “dense government and its opaque Institutions take little thought into the opinions of every day citizens, and the participation of the citizenry in them is reduced to the trivial or non-existence.” US citizens are so removed from the actual political process that many of them choose not to participate. This creates a country with citizens that have removed themselves completely from the political system that judges how they are able to live their lives. I think the “dread” of government is caused by this factor. People know that their personal power in the political system is so low that they translate it into this dread for the government.

  3. alxtower says:

    While I agree that Democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box, I also feel like part of the responsibility falls on the voters. Representatives often provide their electorate with opportunities to provide feedback on policy decisions, and a majority decline to participate. While Congress only has a 13% approval rate, 90% of Congressional members are reelected while districts continue to have historically low turnout rate. This cannot be blamed completely on frustrations, and eventually the voters need to look at themselves for political change. Or maybe they already have, which is why two candidates outside the party establishment are doing so well in the Presidential primaries. Great post.

  4. mike65965 says:

    I do agree with the list of problems you brought up in this post. The country has been a result of people wanting different things which results in none being happy with what come of it. The history of many presidents however shows that we have historically elected not only the wealthy and privileged. We have had presidents who were not considered wealthy, and also elect the not as wealthy to the house and Senate. The most frightening thing to me in modern America is how we allow ourselves to be influenced by money. We the people in our society do have a major say in what happens, however as you said much of this say is not done only at the ballot box. We could change the way things go in our country if we can convince enough Americans to risk their comfort for change. we have the power to stop corruption in money in America by refusing to spend or work places that we are not in full support of. the issue with these changes is that people may lose jobs and we may lose the convenience of many stores in the process. I don’t think most americans are willing to give up the comforts that we do have through the system that has created this to make those changes.

  5. zschilling says:

    Great Post! Very Insightful. In todays political spectrum, (as before) we have a split in our idealogies as it pertains to government power and influence. While many want more government power; others want less and its become more difficult for us to find the common ground. Our democracy definately doesnt end in the ballot box. However, our ballot box is a major influence on where our country will be in the coming years. As many have been discouraged to vote due to their “unimportance” and turnouts rates have been very low in previous presidential elections, the 2016 presidential race have come to be an outlier. The amount of support Trump has gathered in both parties is astonishing. His supporters have a wide range of reasons why they support them but whats interesting is that some of his supporters ideaologies dont support his policies however they still support him due to his “honesty” and “government criticisms”. What woud Morone have to say about Trump and the 2016 presidential election.?

  6. nshah210 says:

    Okay, what has always bothered me is how the people are allowed to choose who they elect into the senate and house, but the approval rating is always super low. How do you think that Monroe or the Anti-Federalist/Federalists would respond to that? What would they say is the problem? I just feel like the voters are in more control of the situation, but always blame the person they elected, rather than taking the blame upon themselves.

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