By Thomas Levergood, July 22, 2010 in Outside the Classroom
Public awareness of weakness and failure in the American political system has been a recurrent theme in our public life since Watergate. The “malaise” of the Carter years, the frustration over the power of special interest groups, the inability of our federal government to practice basic fiscal discipline, and the lack of public confidence in our elected officals are deeper problems than fixes such as more campaign finance reform or term limits can address. We need to search deeper for the disorder underlying our political paralysis.
Ours is supposed to be a government of laws not men, one that relies on the wisdom of institutions to make up for the failings of human character. We need therefore to ask where our institutionshave failed us. The national party conventions of the next two weeks provide a suitable moment to reflect on how our political system has been transformed from one which better served the common good to a lobbyocracy, one in which on issue after issue special interests prevail agains the general interest. Those who witnessed the great drama of the national party conventions of the 1950’s and early—or those who know American political history—will realize that the media coronations of the primary election victors we will witness differ greatly from the party conventions of the past when citizen-activists actually chose presidential and vice presidential nominees and negotiated a party platform. Beyond the nostalgia for loss of the great public drama of these conventions (and the wish to be spared the greater and greater length of presidential primary campaigns), lie fundamental lessons about he crisis of American democracy.
Diagnosis of the causes of our current discontent requires that we understand their historical development. Americans speak reverently about the Constitution as if nothing has changed since 1787. In fact, the American republic has changed radically throughout its history. Our election laws and political party rules form a secondary de factoconstitution that determines the character of our government—perhaps as much as the Constitution itself. The primaries that we take for granted today were enacted as populist experiments only at the beginning of this century. To understand how far our democracy has decayed, we need to examine in detail the institutional strengths and successes of traditional American party democracy.
The Constitution founds democratic freedom on the participation of citizens in public institutions—as voters, jurors, and elected officials. According to the Founders, popular election of representatives would ensure that governors are responsive to the public, while well-crafted institutions would allow them to legislate wisely and resist sudden popular whims. Legislators would form an elite, not because they were nobly-born or wealthy, but rather because republican institutions formed them as citizen-leaders by training them in civic moral virtue. The legislators' debate—like the town meeting—would inform representatives and lead them to consider the concerns of others. Legislators—like jurors—should judge from a perspective broader, more informed, and more deliberative than their own opinions or those of their constituents. Competitive elections should motivate legislators to please their constituents; but republican institutions should lead them to serve the long-term interest of the entire nation.
The 19th-century political party evolved naturally from legislative politics and provided the growing nation with important political goods. First, the party allowed the "new men" of the rising classes to develop political skills and become leaders. Second, it adapted the Constitution to the needs of a large nation by creating a structure that welcomed diverse regional groups and led them to work out a unified, consensus agenda. Third, the party's disciplined consensus prevented single interest groups from overly disrupting the political system. Fourth, the party's nominating conventions carried on the Constitution's vision of representative institutions and preserved a model of the Founders' deliberative Electoral College. Finally, the party system respected the Constitution's safeguards of separation of powers, checks and balances, and concurring majorities.
Ours was never supposed to be a majoritarian democracy. Our laws are supposed to enjoy the indirect consent of a super-majority of the nation. The Founders' doctrine of human freedom held that government should act only to provide goods and services that benefit the common interest of allcitizens. Political parties increased participation while still serving this broad ideal of consensus democracy, not majoritarianism. The party politics Lincoln knew provided the things citizen protest groups demand today: citizen participation within institutions, team accountability for government decisions, competitive elections that removed ineffective incumbents, and team leadership that overcame legislative gridlock.
Most contemporary analyses of our political system consider only the recent past. Suburbanization, television, factional lobbies, and other oft-cited factors have indeed changed the shape of our politics. But the real cause of our decline is the primary system that deprives a body of organized, informed citizens the power to name candidates and choose a team. The party was destroyed as a citizen organization that could resist corporations and interests groups. Special interests and corporate powers have been able to manipulate the "reformed" system as much as did under the previous corrupted party system, if not even more.
The full effect of primary reforms was not immediately apparent, however. During the age of Roosevelt, parties continued to play an important role by nominating presidential candidates and funding campaigns. Moreover, attitudes and behavior created by consensus politics had not yet decayed. By the 1970s, however, it became clear that our political culture had changed. By eroding the power of political parties, primaries—together with campaign finance reforms—had created the institutional preconditions for a political culture dominated by manipulative campaigning and a government responsive less to the well-being of the nation as a whole than to the donations of special interest lobbies or primary voting blocs.
The secondary constitution created by these reforms perversely prevents the formation of consensus and allows countless special interests to tyrannize over the nation as a whole. The reformers' naive ideology was counter in spirit to the ideals on which the Constitution stands. The progressives held mythical beliefs that institutions such as parties and corporations were evil, but that "the people" as a mass were naturally endowed with civic virtue and goodness. The Founders' insisted that all government power derive directly or indirectly from a vote of the entire people. By contrast, primaries constitute an anti-constitutional two-tiered electoral system that magnifies the power of extremists, PACs, and interest groups and allows them to veto candidates and impose their narrow views on elected officials. Designed to empower the masses, primaries have in fact diminished active participation in politics and alienated voters.
Our political parties today are mere shells. The current system throws independent legislators together in nominal groupings instead of providing a party structure for working out a real team consensus. Incumbents avoid responsibility for their poor performance as they win elections by pleasing each separate interest group, raising campaign contributions to inhibit competition, and pandering to our appetites with slick advertising and demagogic quick-fixes. Wealthy candidates buy name-recognition and win primary races. In short, the party is powerless to recruit the best candidates and to discipline irresponsible incumbents. Proposals for the expansion of term limits do not address the root causes of government failure, because they would do nothing to restore party group responsibility or limit the influence of interest groups and the media.
Corruption is inherent in human politics—“men are not angels”—but the cures of the Mugwump reformers have proven worse than the disease. Their mistakes have created a politics of systematic selfishness and irresponsibility.
Today we have an opportunity to turn to the genuine institutional solutions the progressives neglected: restoration of competitive elections, recruitment of talented citizens into meaningful political work, and vigorous prosecution of official malfeasance. We need to replace the primaries that have transformed voters into mere consumers with a system of local, state, and national "civic forum" organizations that will create a new cadre of citizen-statesmen. "Civic forum" organizations that would discuss and negotiate a consensus and then recuit citizen candidates to represent it could restore the virtues of the politics of public assembly praised by the Founders. A cohesive civic forum would provide legislative teamwork, accountability for collective decisions, a consensus political discourse, and activecitizen participation in politics. These forums would hold legislators accountable for their contribution to party teamwork and their legislative records. Incumbents and extremists would find the forums more difficult to manipulate than primaries; candidates would owe their nominations to reflective citizen-politicians rather than advertising consultants, political action committees, and interest groups. The forums would transfer the focus of our politics from personalities and electioneering to discussion, listening, and deliberation. Further, a strong civic forum organization would ensure an accurate means of term limitation, because party caucuses would remove officeholders who do not contribute to effective government; voters would remove an incompetent elected team.
Because legislators know that they can dodge responsibility for bloated budgets, they have no motivation to restrain spending or enact an agenda of national sacrifice. Collective responsibility through traditional parties or the proposed civic forums, would promote national well-being instead of purposes of special interest groups. A civic-forum alliance—which requires that team members are chosen by the forum—would provide voters a concrete and intelligent gauge for evaluating the sum-total of a legislator's votes. The voter would simply evaluate his and the nation's well-being and then vote to endorse or reject the organization in power.
Replacing primaries and weakened parties with healthy civic forums would enable the people to see who is truly responsible for government failure and vote them from office. This would motivate the legislative majority to work together effectively and would allow Americans to hold Congress responsible for enacting a coherent domestic policy agenda. While the alliance formed in the civic forum would still respond to the needs of specific groups, competitive team elections would lead legislators to moderate each group's demands and fit them together into a consensus agenda. The citizens of America need the vision to replace our current anti-constitutional, slip-shod political system with a citizen democracy that will allow them to build something for their grandchildren.
Thomas Levergood is the Executive Director of the Lumen Christi Institute for Catholic Thought, Chicago, Illinois.