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the complete review - political science
Four Crises of
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B+ : useful and well-presented consideration of democracy in the US
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Alasdair Roberts begins his book by noting that we are, once again, "suffering from a bout of democratic malaise" in the United States (and also elsewhere, but here and throughout his focus is on "the American experience") -- doubts about whether or not this system is really working out the way we'd like it to, and at least some toying with possible alternatives.
(He means the malaise of recent years, since the most recent financial crises, rather than the present-day panic-of-the-moment triggered by the election of Donald Trump as American president; Trump only gets a single footnote mention in the book.)
Four Crises of American Democracy is organized by the four central complaints Roberts sees being made against democracy -- Representation, Mastery, Discipline, Anticipation, as the subtitle has it -- discussing examples of these in times past and present, and how they have been and can be dealt with.
(To say how they can be overcome might be too much; as he notes -- and as the present-day (early 2017) situation again shows -- these crises tend to recur -- but the question is whether democracy is the system best-able to deal with them; while acknowledging occasionally tempting (certainly in the short term) counterexamples, Roberts comes down squarely in support of democracy à l'américaine.)
Roberts' examples, which take us through different American historical periods after the Civil War, are helpful reminders of how democracy has changed and evolved, even just in the past century.
He begins with the question of 'Representation', which long had not applied to many aspects of government and parts of the population: the seventeenth amendment (changing the system by which US senators were (s)elected to a popular-vote system) was only ratified in 1913, women (half the population !) only gained the right to vote in 1920, and of course voter suppression efforts to keep blacks (and some other minorities) from being able to vote were long (well into the 1960s) particularly egregious (and, sadly, are enjoying renewed popularity).
Yet in other respects representation -- at least in terms of voting-rights -- has at times been surprisingly wide open: amazingly aliens were long allowed to vote in many states, as long as they: "declared their intention to acquire citizenship".
Only once nativist sentiment against immigration swung the balance -- because of fears of the wrong kind of immigrants, and the possible threat to entrenched powers -- was this done away with.
In 'Mastery' Roberts considers what citizens expect of the federal government, and what it is capable of, and here his historic examples remind how, a century ago, the federal government was indeed too small to manage many of the large-scale projects (or interference into all aspects of daily life, some would (and vociferously do) argue) that we now take for granted.
Before the First World War, even the army was an (intentionally) undermanned force, with great suspicion on the side of the states of a national force (that they understood could turn against them); in the meantime, the military-industrial complex has grown to immense (and, arguably, in many respects, dangerous) size.
Rapid industrialization and the host of issues that arose with and around that also led to a rapidly growing federal government, with Roberts firmly of the opinion that: "The administrative state was a creation of American democracy" -- voter-approved.
He suggests the balance is a difficult one -- a larger state means one that can more easily (ab)use its powers -- but that the electorate repeatedly endorsed it, as the best possible means of dealing with the affairs and ambitions of state.
(Of course, the call to lessen especially centralized authority remains a powerful and popular one, and this ideological tug-of-war between proponents of 'big government' and those favoring small and devolved government is one of the fundamental conflicts of our times.)
In the section on 'Discipline' Roberts considers especially the (democratic) government's role in controlling the economy, noting that here, especially, the temptation for popular-at-the-moment quick fixes (a widespread concern in democratic systems, where politicians face election and hence are tempted by short term solutions to curry favor, even if the long term costs of these are high) can be detrimental -- and also that citizens' expectation, of what government can do, is often unrealistic.
Especially worth noting: as he discusses, the American Federal Reserve is somewhat decentralized but still susceptible to politicians' influence -- in ways that more independent central banks elsewhere are not -- and it is only the hands-off approach of recent administrations that has, for now, made for the appearance of a truly independent Federal Reserve.
In 'Anticipation' Roberts considers the difficulties the American democratic system has had with issues of obvious future significance -- specifically the example of global warming: "an extreme test of democracy's ability to overcome its tendency toward shortsightedness".
Given the incredible success of interest groups in the United States in calling into question even the obvious premise of man-made contributions to climate change, one has to wonder whether the problem isn't much more deeply rooted than Roberts allows for; certainly the challenge appears very great indeed.
Roberts considers the idea of a 'Green Fed' to address the problem; given current opposition by a significant part of the population to any sort of government expansion (beyond Homeland Security and Border Patrol, which have ballooned, under the radar), it's hard to imagine such an idea getting off the ground.
Roberts arguments that it is preferable to a 'green authoritarianism'-approach -- including noting that: "it would look like ordinary politics", which he sees as a positive -- are convincing, but in the US anno 2017 it's hard to see the democratic process catching up with what has long needed to be done.
And with strong executive powers a single presidential action can still turn back the process in hugely damaging ways -- witness president Trump's [as yet unfulfilled, as I write this] promise/threat to withdraw from The Paris Agreement
Roberts' analysis, and his many historical examples, are a helpful reminder that, as he puts it, this feeling of 'democratic malaise', this doubt in the system, is nothing new, or rare: "It is, in fact, a recurrent feature of American politics".
So too, many of the reactions from previous instances, and weak spots that certain groups seek to take advantage of -- can seem all too familiar, from interest groups which are seen as having too great an influence to new (and old) efforts at voter suppression.
Roberts believes in the system, and suggests failures such as the jr. Bush's catastrophic Middle East misadventures can be blamed on American democracy having: "failed to fully act like one".
A healthy democracy takes time to deliberate, scrutinizes demands for action carefully, and acts on the best available evidence.
Which one would certainly like to believe -- but given the popularity of knee-jerk reactions can be hard to fully put one's trust in.
Only a few weeks into what already can only be seen as a catastrophic failure, the Trump regime has quickly demonstrated how many democratic norms and expectations can be upended by a single branch of government (though recent Congresses, especially the 114th, did a fine job of that as well).
Roberts' overview of American democracy and how it has adapted and changed over the years is both very enjoyable -- this is a very good read, and though 'scholarly' (there are some sixty pages of endnotes ...) not in any way tiresomely academic -- and thought-provoking.
In these terrible days of the beginning of the Trump (mis-)administration, it is easy to lose oneself in the horror of every day's new and almost invariably shocking developments, but Roberts' book is a reminder both of the enduring (though not unassailable ...) stability of democracy, and the more basic issues always surrounding it.
The one mention of Donald Trump in the book is only in a footnote, as Roberts mentions the 2016 US presidential election, and candidate (though already acknowledged as Republican party front-runner) Trump as an exemplar of the: "temptation in such moments to seize on rough but viscerally satisfying solutions".
Now, as president, Trump seems committed to also lead this way, a grave challenge to the vision of democracy Roberts espouses; one hopes the system as a whole is strong enough to withstand these challenges (the Republican-led 115th Congress certainly doesn't appear too concerned, but at least the judiciary apparently hasn't yet been fatally compromised) -- even as there's no question that it has already harmed and undermined many of the fundamentals.
'Democratic malaise' doesn't look likely to be cured anytime soon, and our discontents may well swell considerably before we begin to return to sanity and firmer footing.
- M.A.Orthofer, 13 February 2017
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Four Crises of American Democracy:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Alasdair Roberts teaches at the University of Missouri.
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© 2017 the complete review
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