“Do you know what a compromise is?” [Atticus Finch asked his young daughter].
“Bending the law?”
“No. It’s an agreement reached by mutual concessions …”
“To Kill a Mockingbird”
“Not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle.”
Thomas Jefferson, first inaugural address
Esteemed Minnesota political ponderer Larry Jacobs is spending this winter of discontent in England. While there, Jacobs is pondering, as are so many, why the world’s two greatest democracies are both immobilized wrecks just now, having seemingly lost the capacity to resolve disputes without repeated showdowns, shutdowns and no-confidence votes.
The director of the political shop at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School posed the riddle in political science terms on Twitter a few days back:
“Why,” Jacobs tweeted, “are two countries with different forms of government (parliament vs. separation of powers system), different political party structures, and different economic circumstances facing similar breakdowns in governance?”
Answers on the professor’s 280-character essay test included quarrels with his premises (i.e., the governments are not really different; the breakdowns, not really similar) and various laments about weak leadership and the global resurgence of nationalism and cultural chauvinism. All that and more surely are part of a many-sided story.
But let me hazard an amateur observer’s systemic political science hypothesis — one that may not wholly surprise Jacobs, as a self-described sympathizer with the maverick “political realist” school of thought.
One part of the trouble with democracy on both sides of the Atlantic in our era may be that we’ve embraced rather too much democracy.
Too much democracy of the wrong kind, at any rate — direct democracy, as opposed to indirect, representative or “mediated” democracy.
Consider that today’s acute paralytic seizures have their origins, in both the U.S. and the U.K., in 2016.
That year, former British Prime Minister David Cameron, beset by factionalism in his nation and in his Conservative party, made good on a very bad pledge he had made to put the question of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union up to a nationwide popular referendum. Cameron and the “Remain” cause he championed lost, and his successor Theresa May’s agonizing attempt to negotiate and win approval for some kind of reasonable “Brexit” separation is being summarily rejected both by those who want to repudiate the voters’ decision and by those “Leave” zealots for whom no sensible Brexit is Brexit enough.
It’s surely become clear that for many years British elites had too haughtily ignored growing discontent among working-class Britons over too much immigration and too much surrender of self-government to distant bureaucrats.
But it was positively daft to overcompensate by allowing the vast and varied complexities of a decision to discard E.U. membership to be deliberated through a raucous, overheated kingdomwide election campaign.
In America, meanwhile, 2016 brought the crowning achievement of more than a century’s political reform aimed at dis-empowering loathsome political party “bosses” and giving more control to “the people.” That achievement is Donald Trump, who is like Brexit in that he expresses a good many legitimate and too-long-dismissed grievances of the working class — but does so in a dangerously careless way.
Trump, of course (as reformers who still aren’t done “fixing” America’s political system will eagerly remind you), wasn’t elected in a nationwide popular vote. But he was put on the national ballot by a nominating system that since the early 20th century has steadily elevated the role of primaries and other “democratized” delegate-selection systems and weakened party leaders. Internal party politics was forcibly moved from the smoke-filled back room to the fun-filled show room, where salesmanship conquers all.
That’s what eventually made it possible for the GOP nomination to be hijacked, over the objection of nearly every mainstream Republican leader, by a flamboyant, rabble-rousing “personality,” savvy in the ways of social media (another powerful democratizing force that is ruinously out of control, as journalism, too, has lost its bosses and gatekeepers).
The hyper-democratizing of political processes likewise has had much to do with the rise of militant factions (Tea Party, Resistance) that are driving politicians of both left and right ever further toward the fringes, where they recoil from compromise on any high-profile issue, for fear of being “primaried” by more extreme forces.
What pragmatism and moderation in politics lack today is passion — a zeal to counterbalance the fevers of ideological extremisms. Historically, that needed passion came from political insiders’ cynical hunger for power and its spoils — but only because they had tools with which to control factions, choose candidates and hold complex coalitions of interests together in order to win whenever they could and cut deals when they couldn’t.
This story of how idealistic, purifying reforms may have deformed our politics clashes with nearly all the romantic prejudices of our age. Yet here and there it’s being told across the political spectrum — for example, by Joseph Postell in “The Rise and Fall of Political Parties in America,” a paper for the Heritage Foundation last fall, and by Jonathan Rauch of Brookings in, among other places, his 2015 e-book, “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy.”
It’s a story that helps explain how so many of our political disputes have become as immune to compromise as religious dogmas, because every “difference of opinion” is now a “difference of principle” — and concessions, rather than the everyday currency of the political marketplace, are seen as unholy betrayals.
It isn’t obvious how we could reverse the damaging course we’re on. But a start would be to stop assuming that absolutely every democratizing reform we dream up will automatically make our politics healthier.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.