Politics & Policy

E Pluribus . . . Gridlock

Traffic along Interstate 395 in Washington, D.C. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
Increasing diversity, despite its social benefits, has a downside: Nobody agrees on what’s in the national interest.

A mantra we hear everywhere these days is that diversity is a good thing. And no doubt, it is. Diversity facilitates an exchange of ideas and opinions, and it promotes economic growth. Moreover, the alternative to diversity is to suppress the views and opinions of some subset of citizens, which is completely unacceptable in a republic.

But diversity does create challenges for civil society, even if on balance it is beneficial to the nation. In particular, it facilitates the gridlock that has recently come to define our politics.

Now, to be sure, gridlock is a consequence of multiple causes — too many to enumerate in a column such as this. Still, a look back at the origin of the Constitution suggests how diversity can stymie public-policy initiatives under our system of government.

Prior to the founding of the United States, true republics — where there was no hereditary ruler — were typically limited to small territories of homogenous citizens. The Greek city-states of the ancient world were the model, and the only modern analogues were to be found in Italian cities such as Florence. The French historian and philosopher Montesquieu thought this was no mere historical accident. He wrote in The Spirit of the Laws that it was “natural” for republics to be small. The rulers would be more like the people, who would have a better grasp of the public interest than they would in a large, diverse polity.

The Anti-Federalists, who opposed the creation of a strong, centralized government, brought this argument to bear against the Constitution. In fairness to opponents to ratification, such as Melancton Smith and Patrick Henry, the Federalists were proposing something quite novel when they called for a national government that directly governed all citizens, whether they lived in New Hampshire or Georgia or anywhere in between. The Federalists had good reasons for the proposed change; after all, the 13 American states were similar to the classical ideal of a republic, and they had behaved terribly during the 1780s — for instance violating the rights of Loyalist minorities, passing extreme debtor laws, refusing to fund the Continental Congress, and interfering with the commerce of other states. But the Constitution was still a step into the unknown.

The Founders, often implicitly but in the case of James Madison quite explicitly, were offering an alternative vision of republicanism based on assumptions about human nature similar to those of modern economics. Human beings are inherently self-interested — too focused on their own narrow ambits to consistently supply the virtue necessary to sustain a small polity and care for the greater good. In small republics, majorities can easily form around some particular faction, which then has the power to dominate everybody else. The solution, therefore, was to create a large republic, so that it would be harder to form such majorities.

This was an ingenious idea, and the proof is in the pudding. The United States has the oldest written constitution still in use today. And during the 228 years of its operation, the nation has gone from being the backwater of Western civilization to the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world.

But look a little closer at the solution of the extended republic. It is inherently a defensive posture. The idea is to make it hard for any one group to impose its policy preferences on everybody else. It follows that the more groups there are in society, the less they’ll come to mutually agreeable terms. For starters, a diverse society suggests a multiplicity of interests — and what benefits some group will often hurt another. It also creates a multiplicity of perspectives on what constitutes the good of the whole. It is hard to think abstractly about the public interest of a large, diverse polity such as ours, meaning that an individual will often extrapolate from his personal experience when he is assessing what is good for the nation as a whole.

So what happens when the people in a nation are especially diverse? They may come together around shared goals, but it’s more likely that they will not agree on what those shared goals should be. Indeed, when it comes to deciding what’s truly in the national interest, it’s possible that the diverse groups will never agree on anything of substance.

When we look back to, say, major policy initiatives such as the New Deal or the Great Society, we have to reckon with the fact that the United States was much more homogenous then than it is now. That means it was much easier to reach consensus in those days.

Over the past 50 or so years, the United States has become substantially more diverse in several important ways. The accessibility of college has created educational differences among the growing number of citizens who attain advanced degrees and those who remain left behind. Geographical dispersal — in particular the growth of the Sun Belt — has separated us farther from one another. The Voting Rights Act enfranchised  millions of African Americans who had previously been precluded from voting. The nation has become less Christian now than it once was. A “third wave” of immigration — particularly from Asia and Latin America — has increased the percentage of foreign-born people to a level not seen in 100 years. The Internet has brought us closer in contact with one another, in some respects, but it has also made popular culture less “popular.” There are no bands as popular as the Beatles, no movies as popular as Gone with the Wind (excepting a handful of established franchises that are themselves very old), and no shows as popular as M*A*S*H.

So when we look back to, say, major policy initiatives such as the New Deal or the Great Society, or even to periods of relative political calm like the Dwight Eisenhower administration, we have to reckon with the fact that the United States was much more homogenous then than it is now. That means it was much easier to reach consensus in those days. A very large portion of Americans were what we today would call white working-class churchgoers, located in the Northeast and Industrial Midwest — more or less a subset of the voters who today make up the Republican party. Is it any wonder that such big changes were possible then, but not today?

Again, this is not to cast doubt upon the real public benefits of diversity. Moreover, the ease with which the nation reached consensus depended in large part on the systematic, centuries-long, shameful denial of the rights of African-American citizens. Nonetheless, all else equal, a diverse polity in our system is going to struggle to reach consensus more than a homogenous one would.

It is important to bear this in mind when we think about how we should reform our system of government. After all, a republic is supposed to reflect the shared values and beliefs of its people. So under the auspices of self-government, a country that is divided along geographic, racial, ethnic, economic, religious, and educational lines is probably going to produce gridlock. We may not like that result, but that does not mean the government is malfunctioning. Diversity is great, but it can impede the kind of broad consensus that under the Constitution is a prerequisite for public action.

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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