A few disclaimers: Billmon is a famous liberal anonymous blogger from years ago who still “blogs” occasionally through extended tweets. While I don’t necessarily agree with his viewpoints, I’ve always found him thoughtful and insightful, and this is another of his tweetstorms that deserves further thoughts.
I am not exactly a “believer” in democracy: voters, even a majority of voters, want many things, sometimes even contradictory things, certainly not always moral, wise, or noble. If Arrow has taught us anything, it is that democratic choices are often schizophrenic, illogical, and sometimes can be manipulated in support of all manner of political agendas. If anything, Arrow imposed too many restrictions in his assumptions and downplayed the possible manipulative recourse that agenda setters can take. Yet, the core of Arrow’s insight was not that democracy is manipulable, but that it is unpredictable. No amount of agenda setting short of too overt rigging can ensure that the institutions builders can always get what they want via procedurally “democratic” means. Far from showing that democracy is infeasible, this inherent unpredictability and resistance to institutionalization is probably the greatest virtue of democratic rule. Successful political leaders can embrace this instability to do great things. Not so successful ones try to stifle it through overinstitutionalization and pay a price.
Political success in an unstable environment, however, is not an easy task. A simple institutional “autopilot” that reacts predictably is doomed to fail. Some form of “adaptive intelligence” that can intervene continuously, via vast a network of “underground gnomes” who work tirelessly for maintenance of the political process (to borrow Mayhew’s description) is necessary, in the manner of a modern fly-by-wire system that channels aeronautical properties that should make a plane normally uncontrollable not only flyable, but supremely agile.
The transformations of the electoral landscape in 1980s and 1990s represented a stroke of political genius: the Demcocrats became too preoccupied with the pursuit of their own political agendas, ironically, in a manner foreseen by Mayhew in 1974–the aspect which gets too often overlooked. Hung up on their excessive partisanship, they wrecked their own institutional checks in the House that helped maintain the balance until 1970s in the name of party reform, by dismissing Speaker McCormick and destroying the committee system. Odysseus was thus unbound, free to rush towards the sirens that would assuredly wreck his ship, and they did, electorally speaking. Whether the choices made by the Democrats in 1970s were normatively moral or not is not a question here, assuming they were even able to systematically make a coherent choice. (Recall that it was the schizophrenic fight between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in 1980 that alienated the working class white voters. In 1980, the working class voters were in favor of allegedly “liberal” Kennedy, NOT supposedly moderate Carter during the primaries, only for many of them–not that many, incidentally, based on exit polls that show increase of about 10% in support among the working class voters from Ford in 1976 to Reagan in 1980–to desert to presumably “conservative” Reagan.) Maintaining the balancing act, without alienating a significant chunk of the electoral support base is something that people like Rayburn excelled at, and this is increasingly a lost art, as can be seen among the modern day Republican Party.
It is worth remembering that the first modern socialist welfare state was the German Empire of the Kaiser, the singular achievement of its archconservative chancellor Bismarck who remained hostile to socialist politicians until the very end of his life. He did so by recognizing that political intent and ideological consistency mattered little for great many of the masses: as long as they were granted material benefits of socialism and political and social stability in which to enjoy them securely, they were content to play along with the game in which he set the agenda to the exclusion of everyone. He understood, in other words, that agenda setting power in a democratic or quasi democratic state is a privilege granted by a majority who did not feel that they were being taken advantage of by the agenda setter. If a majority–whichever majority it might be–feels that they are being systematically exploited, they would consider a chaos or a madman acceptable to the institutional status quo, nevermind the outcomes themselves, as witness the history of German after Bismarck himself.
Incidentally, Mayhew–and apparently, ONLY Mayhew in recent years–recognized this: the idea of “universalism” that he propounded as the secret behind successful party politics in US Congress until 1970s echoes the Bismarckian principle: establish a stable political environment in which everyone gets most of what they really want, and the agenda setter gets enough leverage to advance his political goals up to a point. The greedier the agenda setter gets, the more exploitive he becomes of the majority–however it may be defined–the potentially unstable the political order becomes. If the institutions are twisted to help achieve the agenda setter’s aims by renouncing the implicit guarantees that have been granted, as the House committees were in 1970s and the developments in other political institutions in US have followed since then, the potential for an institutional breakdown grows, and no amount of institutional rigging can forestall this–because, when institutions are already broken, institutional rules are nothing but scraps of paper with no significance. If anything, attempting to stop an angry majority with further institutional rigging can only break the system down even further.
Bismarck’s successors took the the fruits of his labor for granted, accepted the stability that his institutions created as part of the natural state of politics, and proceeded to rig the institutions too cleverly for their own good. Within a generation, they gave the world a Great War and subsequently destroyed their own country in defeat and revolution. One might say the same about the old Antebellum American politicians who got too clever in 1840s and 50s, which ruptured both parties by 1860 and produced the Civil War. Much less a rupture came in 1910-1912, which began, a generation after adoption of Reed’s Rules, too clever an application by half of its provisions by Joe Cannon broke the Republican Party for a decade–although the incompetence and heavy-handedness of Woodrow Wiilson coupled with the genius of Nicholas Longworth brought about its resurrection.
Memories of these revolutions are far behind us. The genius of the likes of Longworth and Rayburn is dismissed as bunkums of history long buried irrelevant for today. Kaiser Wilhelm, no doubt, said the same of Bismarck in 1914 or President Buchanan in 1859. Let us hope history does not repeat itself on such huge scale.