When President George H. W. Bush conceded the 1992 election to a young Governor Bill Clinton, he consoled his supporters with expressions of awe for the “majesty of the democratic system.” That seems like another country now. If the daily news is any guide, the loser of the 2016 election is more likely to descend into undignified whining about our “rigged” system or Citizens United than to display such magnanimity.
Our politics have always been a blood sport of undignified recriminations among competing factions. But what’s different about the last decade is the dangerous loss of reverence for democratic institutions themselves. Hovering over our century are still the upheavals of the last. It’s far too soon to forget that Fascist governments sprang up in Europe precisely where democratic institutions couldn’t maintain the people’s trust.
Democracy depends vitally on reverence for “the majesty of the democratic system.” That means reverence for its basic institutions, if not for the men and women who run them as individuals. It’s one thing to criticize politicians as crooked and mendacious, but quite another to say that our democratic institutions are themselves corrupt. If that is true in any major respect, it is vital to solve the problem fast. Democracy begins to die when democratic institutions lose the people’s trust.
Alas, such talk finds a willing audience today, across the political spectrum. During Obama’s entire presidency, trust in government has bounced along rock bottom at less than 20 percent — unprecedented in the history of polling.
While in power, Democrats have done enormous damage. During Obama’s first two years, when they controlled Congress, and since then in the form of unilateral executive actions, the Democrats have verbally assailed the legitimacy of vital democratic institutions, including the Constitution, the police, corporations, and, of course, elections.
The Democrats’ outcry at Trump’s “rigged election” warning is particularly laughable coming from a group of people who think that every election loss is the sinister work of the Koch brothers, unleashed by the dread Citizens United decision, destroyer of democracy. (In case you missed it, Citizens United is where the Supreme Court suggested that corporations had the same right to make campaign contributions as any special-interest group in the Democrats’ political coalition.)
Unfortunately, as the literary form demands, the most dispiriting role in this slowly unfolding tragedy has been played by the tragic heroes. From the Tea Party’s earliest days, its leaders rightly raged against “the establishment,” but often for reasons that were not quite the right ones. And, all too often, their attacks have veered into slandering decent mainstream politicians rather than taking aim at what’s really wrong with the system, a system in which we are all caught up, and which we all tolerate and contribute to in different ways.
While in power, Democrats have done enormous damage, verbally assailing the legitimacy of vital democratic institutions, including the Constitution, the police, corporations, and elections.
It’s important to remember that the Tea Party’s most tangible victories have been small and largely unsung — achieved mainly through the humdrum democratic process. Their authors are more often than not “establishment” people such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan. McConnell and Ryan have prevented the Obama administration and its allies in Congress from doing even more damage than they have done already. And yet those leaders are relentlessly vilified by the Tea Party itself for not accomplishing what only an overwhelming national Tea Party supermajority could accomplish.
For all the Tea Party’s attacks on the establishment, we are not much closer to solving our essentially constitutional problems — the centralization of power in Washington, the erosion of checks and balances, the systematic infringement of economic and property rights, and the lack of freedom of contract and of association. These problems have their roots in constitutional transformations of a century ago — transformations that good people like you and me supported and even demanded.
How the System Got “Rigged”
The most essential problem in America’s system of government is the power of special interests. Everyone seems to agree about that. Unfortunately, nobody considers themselves or their supporters part of the problem. Just as the Athenians of Homer’s time invented myths to explain how the Acropolis got where it was, having forgotten that they themselves had built it centuries earlier, Americans today don’t remember how the problem of “special-interest capture” was created, or that they themselves created it.
One of the concerns foremost in the mind of the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was how to prevent the capture of the government by special interests (“factions” in the parlance of James Madison) seeking the democratic equivalent of crown monopolies, which the Glorious Revolution of 100 years earlier had swept away in Britain.
The Constitution accomplished this basic task in a number of ways. The federal power to regulate economic activity was limited to those transactions that actually crossed state lines. Meanwhile, the states’ ability to create monopolies and cartels for their special interests was limited by the principle of non-discrimination against out-of-state firms and by the free movement of capital and labor, which guaranteed interstate regulatory competition — what we nowadays call “competitive federalism.”
But the twin traumas of rapid industrialization and dwindling farm prices combined in the Great Depression to produce calls for much greater government intervention in the economy. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt ran on the “right to farm,” which he meant in the same sense that feminists mean the “right to contraception,” namely, the right to have some benefit at the expense of other people. The most immediate casualty of FDR’s “right to farm” was, paradoxically, the right to farm: In the case of Wickard v. Filburn (1942) the Supreme Court decided that the federal interstate-commerce power could be used to limit the amount of wheat a farmer could grow on his own farm for his own consumption. Such programs were designed to raise prices by limiting production, forcing Americans to pay higher prices for fewer goods, in a forced (and hidden) transfer of wealth to the farm lobby. Alas, there were many other casualties. Protectionism — in both foreign and domestic trade — did not merely deepen and lengthen the Great Depression, driving millions of families, including millions of farming families, to bankruptcy. It also destroyed our original Constitution, by removing the limits on government power over economic activity and putting special interests in charge.
For Democrats and Progressive Republicans alike, economic rights had to be subordinated to the demands of “social justice” and the (utterly fictitious) public interest in avoiding “damaging competition.” That nonsense continues today, on both sides. Those who blame free trade for our ills are expressing precisely the voter sentiment that impelled FDR to replace our Constitution with a straitjacket of protection rackets for the benefit of special interests. Many conservative Republicans in state legislatures across the land rail against special interests but defend the licenses enjoyed by their friends in the medical, legal, and car-dealership businesses. The Democrats who govern Austin, Texas, recently voted to block Uber from competing with the city’s abusive taxi cartel; now both parties are promising to expand such cartels throughout the economy. Today Republicans and Democrats alike vote to sustain the farm bill’s sugar program, an egregious conspiracy to defraud the public that would result in criminal liability under the antitrust laws if the conspiracy did not include the government.
A hundred years ago, bribing politicians in exchange for economic benefits was rampant, but at least it was illegal. Today it’s not only legal, it’s our very system of government.
In the time of Tammany Hall, a hundred years ago, bribing politicians in exchange for economic benefits was rampant — but at least it was illegal. Today it’s not only legal, it’s our very system of government. People wanted economic protection; government complied in the only way it could, by taking away their economic rights. Americans demanded labor protections; the government responded by limiting their right to work. People wanted protection from monopolies and cartels; government responded by exempting the monopolies and cartels it creates from any limits at all. People wanted “social justice”; government responded by legalizing the systematic bribery of politicians in exchange for economic benefits.
Peddlers of corruption emerged from the smoky back rooms of Tammany Hall, registered as “lobbyists,” and began to replace our original system of limited government with a new system in which every conceivable surplus in the economy could be captured for their benefit.
That system is the reason that working people today feel as if they’re getting screwed every which way, but the people are the reason the system is the way it is, and we need to understand why. In hard times, people demand to be protected from competition. Hence the appeal of the neo-protectionist message being propounded by both of the major-party candidates: It is dispiriting to behold their arrival in areas of the country blighted by decades of progressive and protectionist misrule, only to blame the locals’ plight on economic freedom — their only hope for a brighter future. This is not a developing country willing to suffer material deprivation to win export market at an enormous social loss. Trying to help today’s workers with protectionism is like treating cancer with carcinogens.
Americans are an honorable and charitable people. They expect the government to correct social injustice with economic “fairness.” Hence the nearly universal support for the minimum wage, which Americans think of as a guarantee of a basic living standard. But government can’t guarantee minimum prices except through dangerous distortions of efficient markets, and by limiting fundamental economic rights. Americans don’t realize that the minimum wage is really just a deprivation of the poorest people’s right to work.
Perhaps the simplest explanation of why Americans have lost trust in government is that they expect government to do things that government can’t do effectively, ethically, or constitutionally. The problem is not “the establishment,” but rather the logic of institutional failure into which it has been forced by popular expectations.
Trump, Clinton, and the Honor of the Presidency
Even if they do not understand precisely how or why, people know that something is very wrong with our system. Countless millions of Americans agree with Donald Trump at the most basic level when he says that the system is rigged. A hundred years of misplaced expectations, and the system of centralized progressive government they produced, have left us with a Constitution in tatters. Unmoored from the text of a stable Constitution, the “living constitution” is a dangerous siren’s song that has already lost the people’s trust.
But even now, even with all the damage that the last hundred years of progressivism and protectionism have inflicted on our Constitution, our democratic institutions have managed to maintain their majestic dignity at the most basic level — in the procedures that govern them. In Congress, the parliamentary procedures that provide who gets to call up what bills and what amendments for votes are the essential beating heart of our democracy. The Senate and House of Representatives, chambers scarcely larger than basketball courts, are where all the pressures and desires and contributions of 300 million Americans get sorted out, prioritized, and realized. For all its problems, it continues to work amazingly well, and we lose sight of that at our peril. It’s mesmerizing to behold the proceedings on the floor of the Senate, and realize that reverence for those parliamentary procedures is really all that is standing between us and anarchy or dictatorship. And reverence for democratic institutions is a far cry from what it used to be.
Democracy in America has suffered mightily from the tide of rising popular expectations of government, as Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw. We seem to have forgotten that compromise is the essence of democracy, and so are majorities. If you want to get something done, build a majority for it, and be prepared to negotiate and compromise. When the elder Bush talked about “the majesty of the democratic system,” that’s what he was talking about. Democracy at the root is about a process that is by its nature incremental and messy, in which nobody gets everything they want.
We seem to have forgotten that compromise is the essence of democracy, and so are majorities.
By and large, the elected and appointed officials who uphold that system every day take their responsibility seriously and solemnly. It is incumbent upon us, the people, to reserve — amid all our criticisms of their persons — a certain reverence for the offices they hold, and for the elections that brought them there.
Perhaps Trump appreciates that the responsibility he seeks is an awesome and humbling one, and that he can succeed only by the grace of God, by turning the other cheek, and with the help of many people who nowadays doubt him (and he spends a lot of time insulting them for their doubt). Perhaps God will inspire within him the sense of humility and dignity that the office demands. We can only pray — and we should.
There used to be a time in America when saying grace over the dinner table routinely included a prayer for the president. That was before Americans acquired their current sense of unbridled entitlement in their expectations of government, an intemperance quite at odds with the sense of dignity and personal responsibility that marked earlier generations, and quite incompatible with the efficient, ethical, and constitutional government to which so many of our ancestors gave “the last full measure of devotion.”
Even the Tea Party, which hoped to revive the principles of an earlier time, has wound up following the sort of leaders you might find not at Philadelphia in 1787, but in Paris seven years later, sitting on the Committee of Public Safety, fatally seduced by the mirage of ideological purity, sending their friends to the guillotine for the slightest compromises before winding up at the guillotine themselves, and in the end accomplishing nothing other than sweeping away all that was good in the ancien régime along with the bad, including themselves, and paving the way for a terrible new regime that thought nothing of them or their ideals – the proto-totalitarian dictatorship of Napoleon.
Adolf Hitler once said something to the effect that authoritarianism is different than democracy because it has the people behind it. This not true in America today, but it was true in Germany then, and it could be true here one day, too. The only things we have to protect us from the Leviathan in ourselves is the peaceful rule of law and the institutions, at once modest and majestic, that are our Forefathers’ precious gift to us.
When government officials make promises that a constitutionally limited government either can’t or shouldn’t deliver, when they treat the stable text of the Constitution as an infinitely malleable and permissive “living constitution,” when they empower special interests in the guise of protecting the public — they inflict grave damage on the gift that is our democratic patrimony. And when critics of “establishment” figures stop distinguishing between the officeholder and the office, they, too, inflict grave damage on that gift for which so many have given “the last full measure of devotion.” Our democracy is only as good as we the people make it. If there is something wrong with our system of government, it’s incumbent on us, to achieve a consensus on what the problem is, and start fixing it.
In the breathtakingly beautiful 2014 movie Calvary, Brendan Gleason plays an Irish village priest unwittingly reenacting the stations of the Cross. Drearily enough, the movie ends up being about a covered-up sexual-abuse scandal — but also something else. At one point, the priest (who is innocent of any wrongdoing but seems destined to pay for the sins of the guilty) says something that could almost be an epitaph for this age: “I think there’s too much talk about sins, to be honest, and not enough talk about virtues.”
On that election night of 1992, President Bush’s last words were “I believe I have upheld the honor of the presidency.” We could do worse than to ask God to bless the next president with a similar sense of humility and dignity, and a similar awe for the majesty of the democratic system, but it will be for naught if the American people aren’t thankful for it. There’s been too much talk about our democracy’s sins and not enough about its virtues.