Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Selection: "The Democratic Wish" by James Morone

In 1990, just after European Communism collapsed (about which, more next month), I was at Brown amid socialists, many of them calling themselves “liberals.” Brown professor James Morone’s book The Democratic Wish came out that year and must have caused at least some Brown students to worry that their utopian dreams were not likely achievable within the American political system.

Morone describes how from the very beginning, the U.S. was shaped by two political forces that have rarely been consciously seen as opposites but which continually thwart each other: (1) a more or less communitarian desire to cast aside elites or corruption and create pure democracy and rule by “the people,” in keeping with some of our most cherished ideals and most familiar political rhetoric and (2) a constitutional order designed to create political gridlock and prevent direct democracy.

The disturbing result, argues Morone, has been neither social democracy nor severely limited government but successive waves of reformist struggle that end up channeled into enlarged bureaucracy instead of real social transformation. He observes the process at work even before the Constitution, with fluid and nearly-anarchic direct-democratic efforts such as the Revolutionary network called the Sons of Liberty creating overnight local governments that would displace existing politicians and rewrite laws — with the eventual result that cooler heads like that of Alexander Hamilton would see the need for less-directly democratic institutions that fostered political and commercial stability, stealthily imposed on the young nation in the form of the Constitution.

Morone traces the repeated reform/restraint/bureaucracy pattern through Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the devolution of the Mugwumps’ and Progressives’ high hopes into federal bureaucracies that don’t quite add up to an effective civil service, the openly revolutionary labor movement’s taming through the New Deal’s imposition of labor-management negotiation regulations (for which libertarians and conservatives alike should perhaps be grateful, as it ended, on one hand, violently labor-crushing uses of the state by corporations and, on the other hand, the desire among many strikers to settle disputes through revolution), the 1960s Civil Rights movement’s transformation into machine-politics-like “community groups” underwritten by the state, and (most relevantly at the moment), the very rapid transformation of our half-government-subsidized healthcare system into a chronic source of cost-containment worries (starting, not coincidentally, almost as soon as the government subsidies began, circa the 1960s, not just to the poor and elderly but also to children and, on a massive scale, to hospitals).

Morone doesn’t much mention the broader, hippie-driven cultural revolution of the 60s, though surely that can be seen as part of the same pattern — despite a very unconvincing article I recall in Liberty magazine years ago arguing that the big-government revolution of the 60s was essentially unrelated to the mostly-libertarian cultural revolution of the 60s. I would argue that the libertine attitudes of the 60s were directly correlated with a loosening of respect for property rights and constraints on government (and Jonathan Leaf says much the same thing in his new book about the 60s, which you can get a feel for from the interview National Review Online did with him last week).

But for more on whether left-leaning cultural trends enhance or undermine liberty, see the Reason symposium featuring Kerry Howley, Dan McCarthy, and me in their November issue, about which I’ll have some more detailed thoughts on this blog tomorrow night.


The recurring process Morone is describing is not clearly a right-wing or left-wing one — and were he updating the book today, I think he could justifiably include both the Gingrich “revolution” of 1994 and the Obama-led “change” of 2008 as examples of reformist/democratic hopes that fizzled into bigger spending (albeit much more quickly in the latter case).

But then — and this is something of a side issue — I keep saying it’s educational to note how poorly American politics prior to the twentieth century maps onto left and right, despite the temptation to make it fit. Andrew Jackson’s closest allies and core constituents, for instance, though thought of as anti-elitist democrats, were also anti-Indian, anti-black, anti-banker (for republican reasons), pro-artisans, and pro-immigrant, while the Whigs largely adopted the opposite combo of positions, ostensibly out of a love of existing (quasi-Hamiltonian) social orderliness.

Nonetheless, there’s no denying the existence of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in our own day, and philosophizing as if the tension between them does not shape most of contemporary American politics would be naive in a different way. And importing the dominant philosophical forces of the early republic into our own time and attempting to map them onto those two parties can be as messy as imposing right and left on the distant past: Using nineteenth-century terminology, in some sense Republicans have been the liberals and Democrats the republicans in recent decades. (I just hope we can move forward with borrowed elements representing the best of right and left, a “conservatism for punks.”)

Both major parties today are at times “populist,” which may be the closest contemporary term to what Morone means by “republican” (or for that matter what he means by “democratic”). When the parties relax (as it were) and accept the existing clash of divided interests and existing institutions as ongoing, inevitable, and in some sense healthy, then they are “liberal” in Morone’s sense (accepting of checks and balances, as well as clashing interests), which is almost but not quite the “classical” sense of liberalism (of course, I don’t really advocate acceptance of governmental institutions as representing a sort of healthy, ongoing “balance” myself — I want those institutions eliminated, roughly speaking, not endlessly admired for their interlocking clockwork beauty).

It’s unfortunate we keep reusing the same political words for such different concepts — and perhaps even more unfortunate when we use the same words for concepts that resemble each other but are different in nuanced, easily overlooked ways. (Admittedly, the homonyms are often indicative of real historical connections, though, if not the maximally useful analytical distinctions.)

Morone contends, then, that since the beginning, the United States has oscillated between two modes: communal/democratic aspiration, which mobilizes the people in attempts to unify and “reform” the government (or society), and then a return to our default liberalism (broadly defined) in which unity (and the abstract notion of “the people”) gives way to the usual bickering and clash of factions, that clash being in its own way a healthy, tumultuous limit on government — but frustrating for everyone who thought the latest round of reform was supposed to create a new level of social harmony instead of launching a few new bureaucracies or adding one more constituency to the power struggle.


Just as I warned above against using a right-left narrative to describe early U.S. history, I should add that the simple libertarian narrative doesn’t fit so well, either. Those directly-democratic councils were almost left-anarchist, you might say, as willing to erase debts, punish high prices, or do other things we’d now rightly regard as anti-capitalist as to oust British bureaucrats and roust Tories. Alexander Hamilton, you might say, wanted both to impose a sort of libertarianism and to squelch anarchism. But you could as easily say he imposed liberalism to squelch populism. Or conservatism to squelch the revolutionary poor. You can’t blame people for imposing competing modern narratives on that period.

Libertarians generally celebrate the Constitution, though some have expressed regret we didn’t simply stick with the Articles of Confederation. Had the tumult of the Revolutionary councils continued, though, it’s hard to know whether we’d be freer or not. In the short term, the U.S. would likely have gotten off to a less fiscally-sane, less capitalist start — but might the councils’ ample competition and fluidity have led in time to something much more akin to a working anarcho-capitalist regime than the Potomac leviathan we gradually ended up with? We might simply have ended up with much greater diversity — some states freer, some in economic chaos — which might itself have been better over the long haul.

Morone’s far more statist conclusion in Democratic Wish: We must not only move away from individualism toward communitarianism but, in order to overcome our founding flaws and finally create effective government, move away from the idea of “checks and balances” and toward a more unified, non-negotiating, uncompromising, “stronger” state. Scratch a modern liberal — especially at Brown — find a totalitarian of some sort. With two more decades gone by since Morone wrote the book, though, and time to digest the lessons of Communism’s collapse, I hope he (and society generally) is closer to simply giving up on the illusory idea of strong, unified, effective, and beneficial government.

1 comment:

pulp said...

Good piece, Todd. I remember this book making some academic waves at the time. I was reading Umberto Eco and Voltaire at the time and wore combat boots.