The Solution to Democracy Is Less Democracy, Author Says

DNC, RNC
Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, PA, on July 28, 2016 (left). Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH, on July 21, 2016 (right).Photo credit: © Richard Ellis/ZUMA Wire and © Mark Reinstein/ZUMA Wire
Reading Time: 16 minutes

We keep trying to reform our political system to make it more “democratic.” Grassroots organizations across the world are pushing reforms, trying to bring politics closer to the people. Parties have turned to primaries and local caucuses to select candidates. Ballot initiatives and referenda allow citizens to enact laws directly.

Many democracies now use proportional representation, encouraging smaller, more issue-focussed parties, rather than two dominant,“big tent” ones. At the same time, voters keep getting angrier.

It appears that popular democracy has paradoxically eroded trust in political systems worldwide. What if we are going in the totally wrong direction?

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk to Ian Shapiro, a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center at Yale University. He is the co-author of Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself.

Shapiro argues that the devolving power of political parties — and the evolving power of grassroots — is at the core of the problem. To revive confidence in governance, he says, we must restore power to the core institution of representative democracy: the political party.

Shapiro explains that when voters have too much control, it often sets the system up for failure and disappointment. Instead, we should look at political parties as teams that bundle lots of issues and put many programs in front of voters that are not based on single-issue constituencies.

Voters need to understand, Shapiro tells Jeff Schechtman, that there is an opportunity-cost to everything, and that we have to approach all issues with moderation.

Comparing the political process to “last best offer arbitration,” he explains why moderation is even more important than compromise, which often leads to extreme positions as a starting point.

In the end, Shapiro shows how and why political parties have gotten weaker — and that many of our problems of governance stem from exactly that.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. According to a report just released by Freedom House, a watchdog group that advocates for democracy, political rights and civil liberties, became weaker in 68 countries. The report also says that the U.S. freedom score has declined by eight points over the past eight years. At the same time, we know that voters are unhappy. We’re told that democracy is collapsing, that fascism is on the rise. We hear particularly from the left about the need for more direct democracy, for greater citizen participation, for more direct referendum and initiatives. One group on this program recently called for citizen assemblies that supplant representative government. Yet it seems that the more of this do-it-yourself politics we have, the more anger there is, the more divided we are.
Jeff Schechtman: What if we’re going in the wrong direction? What if the answer to democracy’s seeming ills is not more democracy, but more appreciation of the system of parties and representative government that our founders passed down to us? It seems today a very contrarian view, and perhaps that’s why it’s correct. It’s put forth by my guest, Yale professor Ian Shapiro. Ian Shapiro is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Director of the MacMillan Center at Yale University, and it is my pleasure to welcome Yale professor Ian Shapiro to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Ian, thanks so much for joining us.
Ian Shapiro: Thanks so much for having me on.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to talk in a general sense first about this idea that the solution to so many of the problems of democracy today might not be more and extended democracy, but getting back to the kind of representative republic that our founders envisioned.
Ian Shapiro: We believe that parties are essential to effective democratic governance. The original founders didn’t take that view, but both Madison and Jefferson quickly changed their mind when they actually started to govern, and of course created the first political parties in America. What we argue in our book, Responsible Parties, Saving Democracy from Itself, is that we have, over the last century, but particularly since the 1960s, engaged in reform after reform after reform, and so, as you said in your very accurate introduction, we have essentially, by giving voters more and more direct control over individual decisions, parties and leaders, we have made a world in which we are bound to be disappointed, and then we continue to make additional changes that make the situation even worse. We’re trying to change the conversation and explain why you actually need cohesive parties that function more like teams if you’re going to get effective government.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that we have found that you point out is that the more popular democracy we have, that it has paradoxically eroded trust in government, and this has been true here and around the world.
Ian Shapiro: Yeah. That’s true. It’s not just in the U.S. It plays out differently in different systems. In our system, we’ve had a particularly corrosive effect as a result of primaries. The dirty little secret about primaries is that there’s very low turnout in primaries, and the people who turn out tend to be on the extremes of the parties, people who are activists. So you can get a situation like, you know, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez elected in New York on an 11% turnout, or Jim Jordan elected in Ohio, he’s a Freedom Caucus guy at the far right of the Republican party elected on a 15% turnout, or indeed Donald Trump, selected as the Republican candidate by less than 5% of the U.S. electorate. What tends to happen is the parties are then held hostage in the following way, because if you think about Jim Jordan or Ocasio-Cortez, they go to Washington. And either they compromise in ways that make it possible to govern, in which case the people who selected them feel they’ve been betrayed, which is true, and so they turn on them as others have been turned on in the past. Or they don’t compromise, in which case you get gridlock and most other voters alienated because they see dysfunctional government and so on. Either way, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction bred by the system that we have created.
Jeff Schechtman: When we look at California where the largest political party is declined to state, how does that fit into this larger equation?
Ian Shapiro: California’s made some reforms that we partly endorse and partly disagree with. Two in particular that are important, one is you’ve gone to jungle primaries, which, as you know, as people in California know, it means that the parties don’t have independent partisan primaries. We see that as a Band Aid on a bad system because yes, it tends to push the candidates more toward the middle, but by promoting intra-party competition, you tend to get celebrity candidates and you tend to get candidates who promise to bring home the bacon to the constituency, that get into those kind of competitions which leads to pork barrel politics, which again turns voters off, when in fact what we need to do is strengthen the parties. Jungle primaries weaken the parties in a different way than the primaries elsewhere in the country have done.
Ian Shapiro: We also like the fact that California has gone to independent commissions to draw districts, because in many states, the districts are drawn by the state legislature, and you know, whoever dominates the state legislature then creates safe seats for themselves, and we’ve gone now to a world in which more than 90% of seats in Congress are safe seats, which then means the primaries are the only goal in town, so we like the idea of going to independent commissions, and California’s blazing the way in that. Unfortunately, the independent commissions are not drawing districts that are going to be competitive across the parties, which is what’s really important. We think that there needs to be competition between the political parties over the programs that they would implement if elected so that they can then be held accountable if they do it and it doesn’t work or they say they’re going to do it and they don’t do it. Right now, voters don’t know who to blame in Congress. The parties are so weak that even though they are highly partisan, they can’t actually implement programs that they can then be judged by.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that we see that feeds into this division today is this idea of single issue voters. Talk about that and how it fits into this whole idea of parties which are kind of blended, which are kind of, as you say, bundles of ideas.
Ian Shapiro: That’s a very good example of what we’re talking about. It sounds great, right, that voters should be able to decide on every single issue, and you know, we can have lots of direct democracy, but think about this. If you ask American voters would you like any tax cut, even a cut in the estate tax, which almost nobody pays. It’s estates of more than $22 million. 70% of voters will say yes, but if you say to them would you like us to get rid of the estate tax if it also meant getting rid of prescription drug benefits for seniors, then a big majority say no. So what’s going on there? Essentially what’s going on is in the second example, people are discounting their preference for the tax cut with their preference for prescription drug benefits for seniors, and then they come out in a different place. That is what parties do. They bundle issues, and essentially what they have to do is discount everything they propose by everything else that they propose, and then put together a platform that they think most voters will go for. You know, this idea of voting issue by issue, we don’t discount things by other things that we want.
Ian Shapiro: Just to give two dramatic examples, Proposition 13 in California limited property taxes to one percent of assessed value. Two thirds of California voters said yes to that in 1978, but they weren’t forced to confront what that would mean for California’s education system or what it would mean for local government services and so on. Another example is Brexit. How can it be, one might say, that most British voters voted for Brexit while majorities of both the political parties in parliament that they have elected are strongly against Brexit? The reason is that the parties have bundled leaving the European Union with all the other things that they know are important to their constituents, and they know that those things will be adversely affected by leaving Europe, so they’re strongly against it. It’s the same voters, but they’re being asked a different question.
Ian Shapiro: If you let voters unbundle and vote issue by issue by issue, it’s a little like essentially a child just eating candy without thinking about the stomachache that’s coming later and the doctor’s bills and so on. That’s a very important role that parties play, is to bundle issues and come up with platforms where everything we want is discounted by everything else we want, because we can’t have everything, and everything comes at a cost for other things, and there are opportunity costs for everything we do in life, just as we all know in our daily lives. Essentially, referendum politics and ballot initiative politics is a license for us to be irresponsible in a sense of demanding things without considering what they’re going to cost in terms of other things that we’re also going to demand later. Of course, as you know, Proposition 13 greatly undermined the state politics in whole areas, particularly education and local government services.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting that Prop 13 was so many years ago, and yet the problem has gotten worse because one of the things that this takes place in, one of the things that is the context for all that we’ve been talking about is the reality today of a 24/7 news cycle and social media, which feeds into these single issue ideas. Overlaying that is the idea that so much money is raised in the political system around these single issues.
Ian Shapiro: Yes. There are two important points there. One is that Proposition 13 really ushered in the anti-tax movement in the U.S., which just gathered steam in succeeding decades, but it’s a single issue. Again, if you look at, you know, just harping on cutting taxes is what’s contributed to our $22 trillion deficit as we have now fought the longest wars in American history by borrowing trillions and trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, in Iraq, because it’s impossible for Republicans ever to agree to any tax increases, even when they want to spend money hand over fist, as they have done in these wars and as happened again in the 2017 tax bill that passed. This is exactly the kind of politics that’s been generated. That’s, you know, a really important thing to think about when you push single issues without thinking about what it is that they’re going to cost.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s certainly been lots of talk lately about the idea of independent candidates and third parties. One of the cases that you make is that really two parties is the right number, that a binary choice is what’s correct.
Ian Shapiro: Yes, we do think two parties is the right number because, you know, people like to think the grass is greener on the other side, but much of our book deals with the pathologies of multi-party systems, where again, nobody knows who to hold accountable for what, because coalition governments are put together after elections, and they can then subsequently blame the other member of the coalition. If you have a largely independent person, they will not have the support in the legislature to enact what they run on. If you look at Macron in France, he ran largely as an independent. He created a brand new party of his own. His popularity started eroding within minutes of his election because he has absolutely no organized political party that can implement his program, and you have the French legislature ranging from, you know, Le Pen’s far right nationalists to the socialists, so there’s going to have to be huge amounts of horse trading in order to get anything implemented. It’s a good feature of the American system.
Ian Shapiro: The problem is the leaders cannot get the back benchers or the representatives to support them because the representatives are beholden to outside interests. You mentioned money earlier. When people talk about money in American politics, you know, everybody wrings their hands and says how terrible it is, and you know, Citizens United and all the lobbyists and all the people with their agendas, but what people don’t focus on, why is there so much demand for money? Why do politicians need so much money? The answer to that is because every single representative is essentially campaigning for themselves, so they have to raise huge amounts of money in order to survive and to head off primary challenges and so on. Retail campaigning’s much more expensive than wholesale campaigning.
Ian Shapiro: If you look at a country like Britain, where the parties are much stronger, even though they have their own problems, which we discuss, because they’ve gone down the referendum path and so on, which was a mistake, but they’re much stronger parties and they have much shorter wholesale campaigns, so money is not a big issue in British politics in the way it is here. The politicians hate our system. Not only do they have to spend all their time raising money, but then they’re beholden to the people who give them the money. Everybody knows that, including them, so they don’t like it, but they’re trapped in this system that we have created of such weak parties. That’s what we really have to reverse.
Ian Shapiro: We propose things like if the primary turnout is less than 75% of the general election turnout in the previous election, it should be discounted and the party in Congress should select the candidates, because they have an interest in picking people who can both win in their district and support a national program. For presidential candidates, you know, we used to have a system in which the Congressional parties picked the presidential candidates. Andrew Jackson didn’t like that in 1824 when he lost to John Quincy Adams, so he waged the first populist assault on the system which resulted in 1828 in the first national conventions, and that’s how Jackson got the nomination. The system he destroyed made the U.S. system function more like a parliamentary system, because of course the parties in Congress would pick presidential candidates that they could work with and all be on the same team with. That’s what we need to get back to. Again, we would say if the turnout in presidential primaries falls below some threshold, then the parties in Congress should be picking the presidential candidates.
Ian Shapiro: Of course this goes the opposite direction from what people are saying now. Oh, they’re all complaining we should get rid of the electoral college and Hillary should have won because she got three million more votes, but strengthening the presidency just weakens the parties in Congress. It would make the U.S. more like Latin America where the systems are very unstable because the legislature and the president have separate systems of authorization and legitimacy, and that’s why you often get the breakdown of democracy in Latin America. We should be weakening the presidency.
Jeff Schechtman: Isn’t that what we’re seeing now, that as a net result of what’s happening now, we have fascism, or a certain amount of despotism creeping into the system, as your colleague, Timothy Snyder, points out.
Ian Shapiro: That’s exactly right. It’s when Congress gives up power to the presidency, it’s very difficult to get it back. It’s not impossible. If you look at the 1860s after the civil war, when Andrew Johnson pretty much was trying to subvert reconstruction. After the 1866 midterms, the Republicans had big majorities in the House and the Senate, and they actually took back a lot of power from firing Secretary of War Stanton and Ulysses Grant, who Lincoln had appointed, the military reconstruction act over his veto and insulated the military command from his interference. Of course, they eventually tried to impeach him, but that was a take back of Congressional authority that has been ceded to the executive branch.
Ian Shapiro: We’ve had desultory efforts at bat with the war powers acts which were never implemented, but now you actually saw President Trump’s threats to use emergency powers to build a wall on the southern border. Lots of discomfort in the Republican party at this possibility. That would be a good thing, because what America most needs is strength in parties in Congress that can operate as teams and put programs in front of the voters that most voters care about. Everybody blames the voters. They say, oh, the voters are stupid and ignorant, they don’t participate. Of course, when the parties are dominated by these fringe issues that most voters don’t really care about and are not talking about the things that voters do care about, like retraining people who are going to lose their jobs seven times over their employment lifetime, like health insurance in some form that actually can pass, that’s not going to be free Medicare for all. Then voters would have more interest in listening to politicians and participating in the system. The low turnout, you know, you shouldn’t blame the voters.
Ian Shapiro: We also shouldn’t blame the politicians. They’re just responding to the incentives in front of them. What we have to do is change the incentives. Politicians are not evil. They’re trying to do the right thing, it’s just that they face this impossible task. You know, you look at the Senate leadership, and they won’t take on the extremes in the party because they’ll face primary challenges, so that’s the real problem.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you talk about that comes from a healthy two-party system is an increased level of competence. Talk about that.
Ian Shapiro: If you think about, again, if you think about a two-party system, you’re designing the strategy for one party and I’m designing the strategy for the other party. I have to worry that it’s winner take all politics, and therefore also loser lose all politics. If I don’t come up with a platform that most voters are going to want, you’re going to win. I can’t cater to narrow interest groups. I have to try and … any voters that I leave on the table are voters that you’re going to win, and we both know that. We have to come up with responsible platforms that are going to appeal to large numbers of people, and those are going to be moderate platforms. Everybody talks about the importance of compromise, but there’s a big difference between moderation and compromise, because if you know you’re going to have to compromise later, people tend to take extreme positions, just like a store, you know, puts up their prices in order to then say they’re having a sale. Everybody’s playing games.
Ian Shapiro: What we advocate is really something more like what sometimes is called last best offer arbitration, where if labor and management can’t agree, each one must put out a platform and a position, and the arbitrator has to pick one. That causes them to moderate, because they don’t want the arbitrator to pick the other one. What it’s going to mean is that parties are going to know they’re going to be held accountable for the platforms that they represent and therefore they’re not going to promise ridiculous things that they can’t implement. They’re going to promise things that they can competently do, because when they’re held to account, they’re not going to have somebody else to blame. They’ll actually be held accountable for the policies that they institute, and so you’re not going to have the Republicans in opposition voted 61 times to repeal Obamacare, but in government they couldn’t do it because they knew that many of their voters actually want it.
Ian Shapiro: You have all this posturing in American politics, and people promising ridiculous things that then when none of them happen, just further alienate voters, and then along comes a strongman and says “I alone can fix this, elect me,” but of course jobs have gone offshore, and it’s certainly not creating the jobs that are going to technology and computerization. That’s what a competent government would be doing right now, because that is the biggest single threat to the well-being of Americans going forward. We make it impossible for governments to act in a competent way.
Jeff Schechtman: Looking at the big picture, what do you think is the largest single impediment to getting back to this strength of political parties?
Ian Shapiro: Well, there’s no silver bullet, but the first impediment is to stop pushing in the wrong direction, stop weakening the parties further, and then secondly, we don’t think you could get rid of primaries because they’ve been around for 100 years, but what’s changed is the proliferation of safe seats, which makes the primaries so much more important. We think the country should be following California’s lead with independent commissions drawing districts, but they should draw districts that look like America. They should draw districts that have both urban voters in them and rural voters in them so that people running for office have to think about the interests of both rural voters and urban voters when they put together their programs. We’ve got to get away from the blue cities in red states where urban and rural are at war with each other.
Ian Shapiro: The reform we talked about a few minutes ago, that when turnout is very low that parties should be picking the candidates, and when turnout is very low in presidential primaries, the parties should be picking the presidential candidates. These are the sorts of things that would, at the margins, strengthen the parties and push in the right direction. None of what we propose requires constitutional amendments. It’s all within the realm of the feasible. What we really have to do is conversation and get people to see that we’re pushing in the wrong direction, and we should start pushing in the right direction.
Jeff Schechtman: Professor Ian Shapiro, he’s the co-author of the book Responsible Parties, Saving Democracy from Itself. Ian, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Ian Shapiro: Thank you so much for having me on.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Puck / Library of Congress.

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