A common Progressive-era complaint advanced that the Constitution’s framers were overly suspicious of democracy. George Norris, a leading Progressive Senator, bluntly argued in the 1920s and 1930s that while the Constitution was an advance in democracy for its time, it created too many checks and balances on majority will, it created too many barriers to legislation in the modern era. (He thus advocated legislative unicameralism and opposed activist judicial review, among other things.)
There have been many Democrats and liberals arguing that Trump is not just wrong and foolish, but a danger to democracy. Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq put forward a more sophisticated version, arguing that while Trump poses no danger of a coup, American democracy may face incremental erosion. But their arguments are unpersuasive as a matter of sociology and law. Moreover, they ignore, as is all too typical, the burgeoning administrative state’s danger to democracy. And I say this as one who has substantial reservations about the President.
First, they analogize American democracy to that in Poland and Hungry, where they contend that populist authoritarian parties have degraded democracy. But United States citizens are far wealthier and that wealth provides greater stability. We are not just “fairly wealthy” but very wealthy. And these nations are still scarred by a recent totalitarian past, making their institutions less secure.
The authors also worry that the rule of law may be at risk here because of the deference that the judiciary shows the political branches. This is an odd claim, because there is an extensive literature, going under the rubric of “We the Court” that suggests that the modern courts show little deference.
A group of law professors, now more than a thousand in number, has written a collective letter opposing Jeff Sessions’ nomination as Attorney General. The letter’s list of particulars against him is long—from his position on environmental laws to civil rights laws—as well as allegations of racial insensitivity that figured in his failed nomination to be a federal district court judge thirty years ago.
Of course, these law professors have every right to oppose Jeff Sessions as citizens, but they are clearly here writing as legal scholars, noting their position as law professors at the start of the letter and signing with their institutional affiliations.
What is notable, however, is the lack of any scholarly argument in the letter. There is no analysis of why Sessions’ positions are wrong as matter of law or policy.
In an op-ed in the New York Times, two Harvard political scientist professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have sounded the alarm about democracy in America. It is in danger they say mostly because democratic institutions are no longer backed up by the “guardrails of democracy”—deep norms of “partisan self-restraint and fair play.” Sadly, their analysis of the decline of these norms is itself both partisan and shallow. It is partisan because they note only Republican breaches of such norms, when Democrats have engaged in breaches as well. Its shallowness in turn comes from their partisanship. They blame a particular political party rather changes in the nature of our polity, like the growth in the power of government and decline of federalism.
The partisanship of Levitsky and Ziblatt is striking. They claim that one of the informal norms is that legislative votes about matters of “extraordinary importance,” like impeachments, be bipartisan and Clinton’s impeachment by Republicans was not. But the only previous impeachment of the President—that of Andrew Johnson—was also a party-line vote. The norm that creating new entitlements—also actions of extraordinary importance—should be bipartisan, however, is a much more established one: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid all had bipartisan support. Yet President Obama enacted the Affordable Care Act without the support of even one moderate Republican such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
These Harvard professors decry the failure to vote on Merrick Garland, which they characterize in hyperbolic terms as “stealing” a Supreme Court seat.
It is a theme of fiction: when someone dies, people line up to steal from him or her—estranged relatives and strangers alike. The deceased cannot protect himself. This is a reason that we should expect that death may be a time for the state to work some injustice too.
Thus, we should begin with a healthy suspicion of a tax levied at death. Hillary Clinton’s recent call for a 65 percent federal tax on large estates signals to Bernie Sanders supporters her Leftwing bona fides, but it should signal to the rest of us her lack of a sense of justice. When one adds in taxation from states like New York, the government could then confiscate more than four-fifths of a decedent’s property.
To be sure, our basic intuitions about justice are often hard to justify, but there seems to be a large difference between taxing people’s income at a reasonable rate and taking a large portion of their assets. We think of income as a flow, into which the government may dip, whereas assets constitute a fixed bedrock that is wholly our own.
Our difference in intuition about assets and income might suggest that all estate taxes are unjust. But one plausible justification for sound estate taxes is that they can be a proxy for other uncollected income taxes.
My favorite novelist is also Barack Obama’s. That shouldn’t be a problem, you might say—two people of widely different political opinions can love the same beautiful things. As Paul Seaton has observed on this site, studying Marilynne Robinson’s nonfiction, marked as it is by her very conventional academic-liberal political opinions, is not very conducive to appreciating the exquisite subtlety of her fiction.
The New York Review of Books late last year published an extensive conversation between the President and the novelist (which Joe Knippenberg commented on here). Obama and the author of Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), and Home (2008) come to an immediate meeting of minds, or rather hearts, on their faith in “democracy,” which, the ostensibly Calvinist Robinson posits, is based on “the willingness to assume well about other people.”
Asked by the President to explain the convergence between her Christianity and her “concerns about democracy,” Robinson offers the simplest possible explanation: she believes “people are images of God” and that “democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level.” To the President’s and the novelist’s joint chagrin, though, the “loudest voices” for Christianity in American politics don’t really take their Christianity seriously; supposedly they fail to follow Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Robinson has gone so far as to describe Christian America as “associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism.”
Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States in the late spring of 1831. His official business was an investigation of American prison reforms as a potential model for France, but his gaze was considerably broader and deeper. Tocqueville’s nine-month visit resulted in Democracy in America, a towering achievement that looms even larger in a time like ours, when political attention spans seem to last no longer than the latest trending topic.
Donald Trump is not the most usual candidate in this campaign season. That distinction belongs to Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School and now a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination. It is unusual for a professor to choose the Presidency as his starter office and doubly so when he is running on a single issue—reform of the electoral system. Perhaps triply so, when he promises to resign immediately after getting his reforms enacted.
While I admire citizens of accomplishment who are willing to put themselves forward, some of Lessig’s core ideas pose a threat to free speech and indeed to liberal democracy itself. In his book, Republic Lost, Professor Lessig argues that the Framers believed that elections should make the government dependent upon the people alone. That dependence, according to Lessig, was the basic principle of republican government at the time. As result, Congress can legitimately regulate campaign expenditures to prevent “the distortion” that would occur from permitting legislators from becoming dependent on those who make campaign contributions or expend large sums of money on elections.
Lessig tries to use the rhetoric of republican government to recast the equality argument against permitting citizens to spend independently on campaigns or make substantial contributions to candidates. These interventions, according to this argument, make some citizens more politically influential than others. But Lessig’s focus on dependence demonstrates why an equality argument cannot be rooted in the original Constitution.
The Constitution emphatically does not provide any measure for deciding how public opinion becomes “distorted.” The constitutional dependence of representatives does not come from their being in sync with the opinions of their constituents on any set of issues but on their getting the most votes at periodic elections.
The Obama administration’s best argument for the Iran nuclear deal is also an argument against its general enthusiasm for multilateralism in preserving the international order. If a deal with Iran were not struck soon, it is indeed quite possible that the coalition imposing sanctions on Iran would unravel. And there is no chance that this coalition will ratchet sanctions up to put more pressure on Iran. The coalition may be fraying even more quickly now, as Russia and China fall into financial distress and become more eager to export goods to Iran. Russia in particular supported Iran in its demand to have restrictions on development of ballistic missiles lifted. No prizes for guessing what nation is likely to make money off deals with Iran in that area.
But this line of analysis is also a demonstration of the inherent weakness of international coalitions as an instrument of foreign policy. Nations may come together to purse a joint program, when their interests coincide. But the world is a turbulent place and interests change. And unlike domestic contracts, long term agreements among nations are difficult to police and enforce.
That is the reason that United States would do well to maintain the force and will to act alone.
The left and even some Republicans have argued that the procedures for agreeing to the Trans Pacific Partnership are undemocratic. A leading argument is that voting for “fast track” for the TPP violates democratic principles because Congress is changing its rules now in order to later ratify an agreement it has not yet seen.
The arguments are wholly misplaced. “Fast track” simply permits Congress under its ordinary procedures to commit to a future majority vote of Congress to vote up or down on an agreement that the President has negotiated. Representative democracy is thus served by the later vote on an agreement whose text is known.
It is true that fast track eliminates certain procedural obstacles like the filibuster rule in the Senate and the requirements of committee approval. But there is nothing sacrosanct about a set of procedural rules to democracy.