America’s Doomed Democracy, or Vox’s Adventure in the ‘Prophetic Fallacy’

A few of my grad school buddies referred me to Vox‘s “American Democracy is Doomed,” by Matthew Yglesias. My erstwhile colleagues crowed in agreement with the author about how everyone is complacent, believing that IT can’t happen here, IT being a cataclysmic collapse of the U.S. government, possibly (hopefully?) including chaos, rioting, hyperinflation, etc. You know, the kind of stuff that only happens in other people’s countries.

As a one-time student of comparative politics (obviously) I’m ambivalent of discussions of IT. On the one hand, yes, IT can happen here, and IT is more likely to occur when Americans think they’re immune to IT for no better reason than “America the fuck-yeah.” On the other hand, Vox‘s argument isn’t nearly as persuasive as my colleagues wish.

To summarize: In times of political gridlock, presidential systems, characterized by their separation of powers between the executive and the legislature, are structurally weaker than parliamentary governments. The latter can rely on flexible legal mechanisms to form governments and do the people’s work, or if not, elect a new government that does. Vox says that the current gridlock in the U.S. government is due to polarization over ideology rather than patronage opportunities as it was a century ago. Ideological polarization is more destabilizing because it’s far less open to compromise. Consequently, it’s no accident that we live in a political era of “Constitutional hardball,” in which the parties (legalistically) break with existing political norms to move their agendas forward. Presidents expand their power via executive orders, senators use the “nuclear option” to abolish filibuster rules, and state legislatures redraw their Congressional districts mid-decade.

Vox then predicts that a crisis will cause the U.S. system to fail in 20 to 30 years, its long stability only an accident of history. Our fate shall be that of Latin American banana republics—the states where presidential democracy goes to die. Everyone with sense uses parliamentary systems.

I admit I’m sympathetic to the structural argument against presidential democracy, but allow me to raise a few contrary points.

(1) We have really bad cases here.

There are structural reasons in favor of the United States’ future success. It’s in a temperate (for now) chunk of North America, a continent that lacks an east-west mountain range to break up weather patterns to blight us with rainy and dry seasons. Thus, its climate is as favorable to industrialization as to just producing commodities, which tends to devolve into corruption. It’s institutionally descended from competent British political structures, and its present government was founded by enlightenment junkies. The Constitution’s underrated Equal Footing Doctrine has helped create a federal republic that prevents one or two states from dominating all the others. Finally, its biggest domestic and constitutional disaster, the Civil War, might have been prevented if James Buchanan had more aggressively confronted secessionism as Andrew Jackson had two decades earlier. State governments, founded along the same model as the federal government, rarely suffer constitutional crises that require federal intervention. There is little evidence that the unicameral Nebraska is a beacon of democracy compared to the other fifty states.

In short, as of 1800, I don’t think betting against the U.S. was such a great idea, even if you allow for some variation in its leaders.

By contrast, Latin America is hot or mountainous. Its countries’ institutions are descended from extractive Spanish colonial systems, which have contributed to their replacement with ineffective revolutionary Marxist, macroeconomic populistic ones. They’re cursed with natural resources, including cocaine. Importantly, they also have a “size problem” vis-à-vis the United States. The U.S. is one large “successful” case compared to Latin America’s many smaller failures. U.S. policies can influence Latin American states more than vice-versa, e.g. the cocaine. (Changes in U.S. drug policies would be quite beneficial to Latin America, irrespective of their governments.)

The best example of presidential failure Vox can offer is Honduras’ 2008 constitutional crisis, but that’s a chronically poor, hot country. Perhaps Egypt in 2012-13 would have been a better example.

In sum, it’s not so obvious that parliamentary systems would serve these presidential countries better.

(2) Parliamentary systems don’t always work well either.

Vox raises examples of imposed parliamentary governments and cites them as successes, including Japan’s. Japan does not have a model parliamentary system. Its bicameral parliamentary legislature can cause needless gridlock, and the substantive organization of the more powerful lower house’s districts ensure than rural voters have very disproportionate representation compared to urban ones. In fact, many of Japan’s elections have been held unconstitutional by its own supreme court. Go figure. It is for structural reasons that the Liberal Democratic Party has been in power for decades and has so easily returned to power when it has lost it. During the Cold War, Japan could never be allowed to fail, despite its structural weaknesses (“over-strengths”?). The same goes for West Germany.

Parliamentary systems, for their part, have their own structural problems. Elected governments can recklessly enact damaging legislation that can’t be undone, like Margaret Thatcher’s government, which privatized many of the U.K.’s public utilities and left that country much worse off. Once privatized, utilities can’t be so easily unprivatized.

Parliaments can collapse too. Weimar Germany was totally gridlocked without intervention by President Hindenburg. That might be construed as an argument against presidential power, but the gridlock occurred within the legislature first, not between the legislature and the executive, and the Weimar president wasn’t a powerful, separate political institution as it is in the U.S., though he could select chancellors.

Finally, Europe with all its parliaments has done a worse job fixing their economies after the Great Recession. The U.S. response, while awful, has still been better. I hardly doubt anyone wants Hungary’s rigged parliament for themselves.

(3) Gridlock is the symptom, not the cause.

The more accurate description of the issue Vox is respond to is that democracy’s biggest problem, irrespective of systems of government, is when the minority rejects the legitimacy of the majority’s rule. In other words, the system’s failure doesn’t lead to the collapse; rather, the collapse leads to the system’s failure. The question we’re concerned with, though, is how does that play out institutionally? In Japan, the system is so lopsided that minority parties have token political power. As long as the people are mostly satisfied, though, they grit and bear it. This is barely a success.

In the U.S., there was one attempt at minority secession. Now, it appears the minority wants to rule the majority against its will. It can’t, so it digs its heels in at every turn. Here I found Vox to be straining to take the both-parties-are-responsible-for-gridlock line while feinting at self-satisfied centrists who regularly do so. Did the Senate Democrats use the filibuster to oppose judicial nominees in the mid-2000s? Yes. Does Obama assertively use executive orders (immigration prioritization) and existing legislation (the Clean Air Act on carbon emissions) to enact his agenda? Yes. Is that equivalent to Republicans who more recently threatened to default on the national debt or shut down the government to repeal a health care law? Ha ha. No.

When the parties are reversed, things work differently. If Democrats controlled Congress and faced a Republican president, they wouldn’t obstruct the budget, prevent the president from appointing his officers, or threaten to default on government bonds just to defund popular legislation. They might be pushovers as an opposition party, but they’re much more willing to patriotically compromise. Vox‘s counterpoint that George W. Bush was a gregarious fella (a debatable point) hated by Democrats ignores the fact that when Democrats did control Congress during his administration (barely), they didn’t wage a scorched earth campaign to utterly undermine him.

If anything, the lesson for Democrats is that they need to articulate to the public that the Republicans’ “Constitutional hardball” is selfish anti-majoritarianism, not principled opposition.

(4) Beware the “prophetic fallacy.”

I think Vox uses its structural arguments to then advance vague, unfalsifiable predictions about the future, the “prophetic fallacy.” Yes, some day every government will fall, and among them the U.S. will be appreciated as the nation-state that gave humanity popular sovereignty and the first lunar landings. But that’s not the same thing as successfully arguing that the U.S. government will fail for structural reasons whereas a parliamentary one would not. Vox ignores too many variables like geography, climate, history, and external international factors to make that case.

To some extent, Vox‘s argument shoehorns political reality (the “symptoms” in the previous section) into its structural thesis without discussing the future of that political reality. For one, the Republican Party supposedly has serious demographic problems. Simultaneously, it’s not an accident that Democrats’ presidential candidates regularly win the popular vote and northern and coastal states. Aside from not confronting Republican obstructionism more publicly, their biggest mistake is their watered-down economic policies against abstract inequality and pro-trade for the corporate elite. (But hey, we all know there are clear ideological differences between the parties, right?) The biggest reasons they don’t control Congress are gerrymandering in the House and slow turnover in the Senate. I don’t think anyone seriously expects Republican control come 2017.

Vox then resorts to fear-mongering:

What if a disputed presidential election coincided with a Supreme Court vacancy? What if the simultaneous deaths of the president and vice president brought to power a House Speaker from the opposite party? What if neither party secured a majority of electoral votes and a presidential election wound up being decided by a vote of the lame duck House of Representatives? What if highly partisan state legislatures start using their constitutional authority to rig the presidential contest?

Okay, I can play this game too. What if demographics and odious Republic presidential nominees help Democrats take over Congress? What if Congress then amends the Reapportionment Act to require states with more than five representatives to draw multimember proportional representation districts? What if global warming shifts party alignments to the wet east versus the dry west?

Vox just assumes political gridlock will go on forever without discussing why, and then it sneaks this assumption into its incomplete structural doom scenario.

My principal point in today’s frolic is to say that people shouldn’t be swayed by the mediocre comparative politics (and international politics) or the rhetorical sleight-of-hand Vox uses to argue that the U.S. constitutional system is doomed to collapse for structural reasons. I’m in favor of structural reform in the U.S., particularly making Congress more representative of the country and the president more vulnerable to Congressional disapproval, whether by lighter impeachment/conviction standards or shorter terms of office. Regular readers might be surprised to hear this, but I’m optimistic about what the U.S. will look like 20 to 30 years from now.

What I don’t want to see in 20 to 30 years from now is Vox writers—Yglesias or otherwise—using evidence of salutary political changes that contribute to systemic reform to vindicate this article. Vox promises humiliating crisis; the future had better deliver. IT ala Honduras does not equal “reform” like the Progressive Era. That’s the “prophetic fallacy.”



  1. Gerrymandering maybe gains the GOP 8 or so House seats according to Nate Silver. Supermajority Democratic urban districts are the prime culprit.

  2. One party has the White House, the other party has the majority in the Congress. Who’s the minority? Who’s the majority?

    The difference in the popular vote between R and D for the 2012 election was 4,984,100. As a share of total votes cast for President, that’s 0.38% more of the vote for D.

    Hitting the mathematical middle between ideologies is even worse. Best example: student lending. Go way left, Congress could spend that 150 billion they’re lending annually now, providing ‘free’ higher education without the collateral damage to persons and the broader economy. Go way right, and gov’t exists the lending, and price falls. Either extreme would be less bad than we’ve got. “Centrism” is code for ‘me love you long time’ in the alimentary canal and blame the other guy for obstructing my ideologically pure utopia.

    None of these elected officials represent me, or any natural, real person. Ever been reading through a federal law and come across an oddly placed, special grant of pork for one just one citizen?

  3. ” Presidents expand their power via executive orders, Senators use the “nuclear option” to abolish filibuster rules, and state legislatures redraw their Congressional districts mid-decade.”

    Obama has issued far fewer orders than Bush II; the nuclear option was first threatened (quite credibly) by the GOP, and the mid-decade redistricting is a GOP tactic. When crises hit, Democrats rally behind the President, regardless of party, Republicans put nihilism over the national welfare. Democrats investigated and impeached for actual high crimes and misdemeanors; Republicans investigate endlessly for anything.

    Both sides are not the same.

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