Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Edward Corcoran Headshot

Democratic Sclerosis

Posted: Updated:

As the size of a community increases, democracy inevitably transforms into representative democracy, which brings a number of immediate problems. Many people, for example, become represented by persons they voted against. Government also becomes more remote, with individual citizens unaware of many of its intricacies. When a community is composed of irreconcilable factions, democracy is hard pressed to produce good governance. But mature democracies in which leaders balance competing views and compromise on issues can provide competent and respected governance.

Unfortunately, several intrinsic elements undermine this potential, particularly:

  • Representatives have their own self interests, including personal interests and political interests responding to the local constituent majority that elected them. This affects elected leaders as well as legislators, and ultimately the staff and bureaucracy that supports them. These interests may encourage neglect of local minority elements and can pit strong constituent concerns against measures that promote the overall community good. Tensions between local concerns (often short term and pressing) and the overall social good (often long-term and vague or uncertain) are unavoidable. Local concerns can easily be given precedence - after all, an elected official's position depends on maintaining support of her or his constituent majority.
  • The situation is often complicated by capitalism which intrinsically has everyone pursuing their own individual interests. An open market manages some of the undesirable results of such free-for-all competition, but regulation has proved essential: anti-trust, minimum wage, and anti-discrimination laws are only a small and highly visible part of this system of controls. The more complex a system becomes, the more complex the regulations working to control or moderate it.
  • Every decision has winners and losers. More vocal constituents naturally get more attention. So do favored groups, ranging from family (outright nepotism is avoided) to friends to associates to general supporters to brokers - persons whose support is contingent on obtaining specific favors. Ultimately, thousands of individual decisions provide thousands of benefits to thousands of favored individuals and groups. Regulations and procedures become so intertwined that it is very difficult to change many of them in anything short of a crisis situation.

In the end, all politics is not only local, but personal, with decision-makers understandably reluctant to take actions which hurt them individually and inclined to "trade favors" with others. Democratic institutions become more and more encrusted with legacy procedures and democracy becomes more and more unresponsive to the general welfare. This is sclerosis, a disease characterized by increasing difficulty in performing routine tasks - the body's systems simply become hardened and no longer function efficiently. This clearly is applicable to democratic bodies as well as human ones.

The US Situation

The United States is now experiencing an economic recovery that is disturbingly superficial. Many basic indicators are doing well, but unemployment remains stubbornly high, so for millions, the recovery is no recovery at all. Against this background, the US legislative system has become increasingly dysfunctional and polarized. We have reached a point that the accumulated entitlements and favored treatments are weighing heavily on the system.

There is no simple description of the problem; rather it is a culmination of long-standing trends:

  • The society and its embedded economic system have become so complex that they are difficult to manage coherently. This is obvious in the response to the economic recession - no one really knows just what to do. Widely varying programs are proposed. Some are implemented. The economy gradually recovers, but no one knows exactly why or how to address the unemployment problem.
  • The massive set of laws and regulations, including the Tax Code and the Code of Federal Regulations (all 50 titles), include thousands of individual favorable treatments - many initially put in place with good justification, but all of them resistant to reduction.
  • Economic problems mean short term considerations have a higher salience. Policy changes often have a direct impact on individuals, who will loudly defend their own specific privileges. But they have only a diffuse impact on the general public, so there is often no one to speak for the common good.
  • Political power and economic power are interlocked. The costs of political campaigns have reached exorbitant levels. Interests with strong financial support get represented in the public debate; those without financial backing have difficulty even getting public visibility, much less support.

Every day the news includes dozens of examples of groups, big and small, strongly protecting their own favored positions without balancing voices speaking for the general welfare - a few random examples:

  • A new push to strengthen mine safety faced determined resistance from coal mine owners;
  • Although most farm subsidies go to farms with average annual revenue exceeding $200,000, reducing them is extraordinarily difficult;
  • Even though an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been opposed by both the Bush and Obama administrations, it still enjoys broad bipartisan support in the House because it provides jobs for constituents;
  • Junk mail supposedly pays its own way, though it is hard to understand why it cost 75 cents to deliver a three-ounce letter but only 11 cents to deliver a three-ounce catalog.
  • Unions are intimidating companies to eliminate secret ballot requirements in union-organizing elections.

Vested interests naturally resist change. But the core problem is that this does not simply apply to a handful of rich or powerful constituents, but to thousands, millions, of everyday people who also protect their own individual interests, particularly personal, short-term interests - their organization sends junk mail, or their job depends on a government program, or their own small subsidy is more important to them than the outsized subsidy to someone else, or their company profits are squeezed by some regulation.

The problem of course is exacerbated by economic difficulties which put pressure on all favored treatments, and thus provide incentives for large numbers of people to focus on defending some specific program rather than promoting the general good. Politicians naturally see this as an opportunity; in an atmosphere of growing personal insecurity, it is much easier to get votes with attractive slogans and simplistic answers to complex problems than with thoughtful programs which cannot be explained in a short paragraph. The result is that the government pays for or requires thousands of programs which are inefficient. Collectively, these programs significantly undermine the ability of the economy as a whole to function efficiently. Although some of the programs provide benefits to a wide range of everyday citizens, most all of these lesser benefits go to the middle class; few of them trickle down to the lower classes. Perhaps the starkest example is the $100 billion that the federal government spends annually to subsidize homeowners. Renters get no breaks; homeowners get tons of them. Such unbalanced support is particularly important now that the traditional route to upward mobility has stalled. Almost 100 years ago, facing the rise of Facism and Communism, Harold Laski warned of the problems created by those who "have too small a stake in the present order to make its preservation a matter of urgency to themselves," characterizing Lenin's view of the state as simply a "method of protecting the owners of property." Such disaffection in Europe led to decades of upheaval, war and misery.

But, because of sustained growth, America was able to avoid this upheaval. Immigrants provided an underclass, but growth made America the Land of Opportunity, where they could work themselves up into the middle class, with the underclass replaced by still newer immigrants. Now globalization has undermined this upward flow; many more people have been tumbling down the ladder of success than climbing up it. Immigration has become a weakness as immigrants are basically consigned to a permanent underclass; merging with the chronic unemployed, they form a growing disaffected population. The highest incarceration rate in the world starkly attests to this disaffection, as do continuous reports of murder, misery and mayhem. America is becoming a Land of Stagnation, with members of the underclass pushed into increasingly desperate and often irrational violence. The 1965 Watts riots strikingly demonstrated the power of pent up frustration; two aspects are notable: the rioters burned their own neighborhoods and the events did not spread. In the contrast, the recent Occupy movement rapidly spread nationwide, though it did not erupt into any significant violence. But now one can easily imagine, for instance, not only unruly mobs firebombing upscale neighborhoods but the example spreading to other localities. On another scale, the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington showed how just two determined individuals could terrorize a city for an extended period, while the recent onslaught of a single angry arsonist caused widespread turmoil (and several million dollars damage) in Los Angeles. It is such internal disruption that could devastate the nation, as it devastated Europe starting a century ago.

The central economic problem remains unrecognized: the Era of Economic Growth is grinding to a close; the economy needs to be realigned to function in a steady state-condition. Such a basic economic realignment would be difficult enough without a sclerotic government whose dysfunction is much more deeply ingrained into American society than is generally recognized. The conservative focus on smaller government directly addresses economic imbalances. But the challenge is to identify those pieces of the government which are less important (or even detrimental) to the general welfare. Any significant rebalancing would involve trimming thousands of programs which will adversely affect millions of vocal and influential voters. This is unlikely to happen without widespread, coherent electoral pressures from the lower classes or growing violence leading to a major crisis situation. Economic crisis meets democratic sclerosis.