Does Democracy Actually Work?

There are a lot of reasons why it might not.  I have lectured for many years about why democracy might not work anymore or why it never really did, although it seemed to at the time.  When you approach the case from the backside, as in these instances, just what “democracy” ought to mean is a very complicated question.  I don’t have a very complicated question in mind today.

For today, I mean only this: Can the U. S. operate an adequately functioning government by the mechanism of electing legislators to Congress?[1]  Here’s a quick tour of what has happened recently.  President Obama (D) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and House Speaker John Boehner (R) came up with a “grand plan.”  It was supposed to turn the U. S. government ontopolitical solution 4 a new road, where entitlement costs do not keep increasing and where revenues are increased to cover the costs of “adequate functioning.”[2]  Speaker Boehner couldn’t sell it to his caucus in the House—at least he couldn’t sell it well enough to pass it with a majority of Republican votes, which is the standard he uses (the Hastert rule, it is called).

So we got the Sequester instead—a percent reduction in federal spending so stupid that the people on both sides who agreed to it thought that its monumental stupidity would surely cause people to compromise rather than endure it.  They didn’t.

Then there was the question of paying our debts.  You wouldn’t think that would be a question, really, since that is the effect of raising the debt ceiling.  President Obama wanted to raise the ceiling; Majority Leader Reid wanted to; Speaker Boehner wanted to—but the Speaker could not raise the necessary votes from the Republican caucus and we simply shut down the federal government.  Boehner had quite a few members of his caucus who would rather shut the government down—some had promised their constituents they would—than accept his leadership and make the compromise.

These two illustrations show that the Republican party in the House of Representatives has a sizeable minority of intransigent conservatives, who make it impossible for the leader of their party to actually lead them.  Republicans in the House and the Senate pleaded with them; told them they were going to be hated for what they were doing; told them they were ruining the Republican party.  Nothing worked.

A lot of solutions to this continuing dilemma have been proposed.  Some rely on new powers by federal agencies; some on new powers of the President; some on constitutional amendment. None of those meet the definition—democracy that works— I posed at the beginning, so we are brought back to the question of whether the legislature can be saved.  This is not easy.  It is a little like trying to save a kamikaze plane and pilot after it has taken off.  You will have to defuse the bomb, extend the range, provide additional maneuverability, and add some wheels—while it is in flight—if you want plane and pilot back safely.

Here is what is being done.

Steve LaTourette, (shown below) former Republican House member is leading a group called Main Street Republicans.

“Hopefully we’ll go into eight to 10 races and beat the snot out of them,” said former Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, whose new political group, Defending Main Street, aims to raise $8 million to fend off tea-party challenges against more mainstream Republican incumbents. “We’re going to be very aggressive and we’re going to get in their faces.”

This is Strategy #1.  Moderate and conservative Republicans who care about the continued viability of their party and of the government of the U. S. simply go into the districts where the troublemakers are and beat them.  These are districts where the Republican candidate is certainly going to win the general election in the fall of 2014.  The question is whether the Republican candidate is gopolitical solution 1ing to be committed to his or her “principles,” so that the destruction of the party is an unfortunate side effect, or is going to be a Republican who will make the compromises necessary to restore the party and enable the government to govern.  Those races will all be held in the spring primaries of 2014.  That is how long LaTourette and his group have to show that their strategy works.

Here is Strategy #2.  The Democratic party is taking advantage of the very low approval ratings for the Republican House members by launching a very aggressive campaign to win back House seats.  Ordinarily, in off-year elections (between the presidential elections), whichever party controls the White House loses seats in Congress.  That might not happen this year.

Historic modeling doesn’t seem to apply any more to US congressional elections. The American electorate is impatient and anxious. They want results now, and by focusing on culture war issues instead of jobs and the economy, House Republicans are putting themselves back on the fast track to minority status.[3]

If I were the director of this play, I would instruct the Democrats to put their money into races against Tea Party candidates.  That would have the best effect on the Congress, on the Republican party, and for the robustness of legislative solutions to legislative problems—a solution I am calling “democracy.”  Of course, that is not what the Democrats are doing.  The Democrats are putting their money into the districts they are most likely to win.  The Republicans they are most likely to beat are moderate, business-oriented, mainstream Republicans.  Those are the very Republicans the Democrats have been calling for in the recent negotiations, but it turns out that the party thinks moderate (we would call the “conservative” if they were Democrats), business-oriented, mainstream Democrats are even better.  The result of the Democratic campaign, therefore, will be to eliminate the Republicans most willing to compromise with them.

political solution 2That brings us to Strategy #3.  Business-oriented groups who are accustomed to playing a part in primary and general elections and in actively lobbying the winners, who, after all, do become Congressmen, are beginning to actively seek the defeat of Tea Party Republicans.  And this is true even where the U. S. Chamber of Commerce supported those candidates two years ago.  The National Federation of Independent Businesses, which normally represents smaller businesses, is on exactly the same page as the Chamber of Commerce this time.

Taking on the ideological conservatives could be a bruising task for the business groups, but it’s something they say they now realize they have to do.

“Politics has always been a full-contact sport. The most active groups often command the most attention, and that’s why the tea party has risen in its influence within the GOP,” Mr. French said. “The shutdown has made it clear that the business community cannot afford to stay on the sidelines any longer. If you don’t like what’s going on in Washington, get in the game and make a difference.”[4]

So what could happen?

Democracy, as I have defined it, could be restored.  That’s one of the possibilities.  By the actions voters take, the unassimilable Tea Party members can be reduced in number, their seats being taken by conservative Democrats or moderate Republicans.  Some of the Tea Party Republicans who survive could be persuaded to care about the long term health of the Republican party and could, as a step in that direction, be persuaded to support the Speaker of the House, if it is still a Republican in 2015 when Congress reconvenes.

This is not a constitutional or executive or federal agency end run.  This is not “kicking the can down the street.”  This is candidates adapting themselves to the current concerns of their voters or losing their seats to candidates who did adapt. 

That is actually how democracy is supposed to work.  It is the legislative slice of what “popular sovereignty” means.  It would be so wonderful to see that happen.  I can picture James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams saying, “See.  I told you it would work.”






[1] I know that “adequately functioning” is a phrase that opens the door to all the backside questions I am trying to avoid.  Is the government “adequately functioning” if it loses the predominance in world affairs that Americans have gotten used to?  Is the government “adequately functioning” if it can continue to function only with a huge percentage of its citizens in prison—the highest percentage in the world?  I’m skipping all those, although they are perfectly good questions.

[2] There’s that weasel term again.  There are differences about what is needed and what levels are adequate, but all those views include the U. S. government maintaining a credit rating good enough to keep the costs of borrowing down.  The next step would be something like payday loan offices.  In Beijing.

[3] I took that quote from an analysis of the 2012 election.  I could have rephrased it, but I kept it just as it was to show that the Republican dilemma contains all the old choices as well as the new failures I have described.

[4] Says Patrice Hill in the Washington Times, a paper I have never before quoted.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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