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The greatest danger to democracy today is hostility from within, not anti-democratic forces from without. Elected governments do their best to hold the people they represent at a distance. We have seen this vividly in Europe, where Greek invocations of popular sovereignty were treated as irresponsible; where a group of finance ministers and creditor institutions replaced two elected governments with unelected technocrats (Italy and Greece in 2010); and where the European Union’s chief executive institution, the European Commission, controls nearly all legislative initiative, while the European Parliament enjoys next to none.
This is no less true in the United States, though perhaps it is less obvious because American antidemocratic institutions—the Supreme Court, dominant executive—predate current trends. Consider, however, such examples as the Authorization of the Use of Military Force and subsequent renewals, in which Congress handed carte blanche to Presidents Bush and Obama to wage permanent war without taking responsibility for a declaration. Meanwhile national and state legislatures have continually expanded the police power of the state, one consequence of which is that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and roughly 7 million citizens under some form of correctional control. This is not only an injustice; it is also a sign of the contempt in which representatives hold the public.
Political parties are just vehicles for their members' ambitions.
Ira Katznelson asks us to interpret all this as a decay of democracy’s central institution: the legislature. “The essential decisions of government must come from a legislature founded on political representation,” he writes “not from an assembled people.” I agree that democracy requires representation, but Katznelson conflates this representation with the activity of legislation. He therefore misses the way in which today’s legislatures are themselves a source of the problem.
As Chris Bickerton shows in his excellent European Integration: From Nation-States to Member-States (2013), the power that European intergovernmental bodies have acquired over national politics has been delegated to them by national legislatures. In the United States, too, legislatures actively participate in the hollowing out of democracy. Not just the security apparatus but also the wider machinery of the administrative state, a product of numerous legislative delegations, is complex and obscure, not so much inaccessible as impenetrable to the average citizen. Yet decisions on everything from immigration to environmental policy are made there. Elected representatives prefer to create spaces in which it is harder to hold them to account.
Democratic representation is a complex relation between law and politics. Constitutional law creates the electoral rules and legislative powers of a democracy, but the processes through which citizens actually get represented occur outside these institutions. I don’t just mean social movements and populist uprisings but also attempts to organize disparate interests and ideals into an identifiable will that can express itself in and through legislatures. Conventionally, political parties have done that work. Parties uniquely stand in that middle zone of representative politics. They have been the medium through which the people and the state related to each other, thereby determining the balance between the people controlling the state and the state managing the people. By collapsing extra-institutional activity into “populism,” Katznelson misses and misjudges this central feature of democratic politics.
Unfortunately, as political scientists such as Theda Skocpol and Peter Mair have shown, democratic parties are in decline. They are zombies, reproduced by the dynamics of electoral repetition but with weak connections to their constituencies. Their much-reduced memberships are generally passive, mobilized only for election contributions and stumping. Party politicians relate to citizens primarily as instruments for endowing rulers with authority, not as groups whose ideas and interests need representation. No wonder that they use that power to keep citizens at arms length, or even to repress them. The democratic problem is not the threat to legislatures but the absence of proper representation. Current parties do not stand, first and foremost, as collections of social interests, fused together by a coherent ideology, competing for political power. They are vehicles for the ambition of their members, which is what makes existing partisanship seem so shrill and brittle.
No amount of institutional tweaking and rejigging can fill that void. For inspiration, we should not look to the founding era of constitutional design and genteel representation but to the more modern era of mass parties and ideological contestation. Only a wider revival of politics, with new parties, can restore the dignity of legislation and save democracy from itself.
Alex Gourevitch is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Brown University. He is the author of From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.
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