Democracies and Political Entrepreneurship

Daniel Larison writes:

This is a simple guide for understanding when such groups are democratic and when they are anti-democratic. First of all, the “anti-democratic” parties are actually democratic in practice and in ideology–this is why some people find them threatening. They actually want the voices of their constituents heard and their views implemented as policy! Very frightening. Pro-Western “democrats” are often authoritarian in practice, or they are willing to engage in brutal treatment of their minorities, or they at least have neo-Nazi or Stalin-sympathizing supporters. Obviously these are the people the West needs to support against their enemies, and so we have and continue to do. The difference between the parties treated as harbingers of democracy and those treated as democracy’s enemies is a fairly simple one: the officially good parties are on board with what Washington and Brussels want to do, and the officially bad parties are those that object to the goals of either one or both.

There is clearly some truth to this — Washington and Brussels are not immune to hypocrisy. That said, Daniel is answering one overbroad caricature with another. Daniel’s remarks reminded me of Jed Rubenfeld’s distinction between “the two world orders.”

In Western Europe, quasi-constitutional norms have emerged that constrain the space for democratic politics. In Britain, for example, a large majority of the population favors the restoration of the death penalty, yet there is an elite consensus that keeps the issue at the margins of party politics. Constitution-making is seen as an essentially technical exercise, not a robustly democratic process. And so creating a Basic Law for Kosovo needn’t involve deliberation among a broadly representative group of Kosovars; rather, the constitution can be drafted by a team of international legal experts. Or at least that was Rubenfeld’s argument. The United States, in contrast, is both more democratic and more inclined towards what you might call constitutional nationalism. I found this part of Rubenfeld’s essay interesting: the U.S. is, after all, the home of what Ran Hirschl has dubbed “juristocracy.” Nevertheless, Rubenfeld’s framework sheds light on an interesting tension between sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic.

That is, there is a split between Washington and Brussels. Brussels is more inclined to define a democratic political party as “anti-democratic” if it is merely illiberal. After all, Germany, France, and other European democracies impose onerous restrictions on free speech in order to prevent the spread of pro-fascist propaganda, which they conceive of in epidemiological rather than ideological terms. Washington is less inclined to do so. We could reduce this to a question of national interest, which makes sense when you consider the supposed democratic credentials of Iraqi Kurdistan, but I think this oversimplifies matters. I tend to think that Reuel Gerecht speaks for the American sensibility when he defends the utility of illiberal democracy, and I think the difference between American and European readings of Erdogan is also instructive, though that could be changing.

This brings me to a related democratic puzzle:

During the debate over equal marriage rights for lesbians and gays, there was a widely held view that the Bush-Rove machine cynically manufactured the issue to political effect. My own interpretation is a little different: The official gay rights movement, closely tied to the national Democratic party machine, was initially very reluctant to push the cause of gay marriage, seeing it as a polarizing issue that could jeopardize gains the movement had already made and its place in the broader Democratic coalition. Grassroots gay rights activists, however, continued to press the cause of equal marriage rights, and they achieved a major victory in Massachusetts. Grassroots social conservatives had feared the spread of same-sex marriage for years — the specter of same-sex marriage had been deployed against the Equal Rights Amendment and a whole host of civil rights measures for gays and lesbians — and they mobilized quickly in opposition, through informal groups, through churches, including a number of black and Latino churches that hadn’t been plugged into white-dominated social conservative networks, and also through powerful institutions like the Mormon Church, which recently played a leading role in the fight over California’s Proposition 8. Republican candidates across the country saw this enthusiasm and tapped into it, and the national Republican party did the same thing. Given that major schtick of post-Reagan Republicans had been a kind of small-donor-driven responsive politics, this should hardly come as a surprise. And so Bush and Cheney, both of whom were profoundly uncomfortable taking what they themselves may have seen as a problematic stance on the issue, namely support for a Federal Marriage Amendment that, as Chris Cox suggested at the time, could have all kinds of unforeseen constitutional effects, including the federalization of family law, went with the machine. Of course, there were many other people throughout the infrastructure of the Republican party who really did see the spread of same-sex marriage as a serious peril.

Say the Republican and Democratic parties agreed that civil rights are off the table: equal marriage rights are not subject to debate. This raises an interesting question: given that there was a large group of voters who were and who remain opposed to this extension of civil rights, what exactly do we do with them? It is easy to imagine a George Wallace figure emerging — someone who could shatter the two-party system by addressing the anxieties and demands of an underrepresented constituency, or rather someone who could articulate the grievances of a particular group in such a way as to pull apart an existing coalition in favor of a new one. (The Huckabee campaign arguably represented a very modest, tentative stab at this kind of political entrepreneurship.)

This raises another interesting possibility: how should we think about resistance to integration? Again, I think a lot of people have this implicit model in which party elites would conspire to exclude racists from the public discourse. But is this workable or sustainable in a democratic society? I often wonder if Reconstruction was the real lost opportunity.

This was very hastily written, but I want to return to this idea of political entrepreneurship as it relates to the present political environment — how might we reimagine and reconstruct our political coalitions, etc.