Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit, the Populist Moment, and Trust

Stephen Griffin

The stunning Brexit vote showed all too clearly a chasm between elite and mass opinion, something that has always fascinated me, at least when it comes to democracies.  How do such splits happen in political systems that have regular and fair elections?  Or better, when they happen, why are they not corrected over time by the election of new elites?  In my armchair estimation, Britain is more vulnerable to such splits than most because its elite is so homogeneous.  But then again, America seems to be suffering from its own version of this split.

Surely the version of such a split most dangerous to a political and constitutional order is when elites in both parties (in a two party democracy) are alienated from mass opinion.  Who favored NAFTA?  The presidential wing of the Democratic party and both wings of the Republican.  Who favored looser rather than stricter controls on immigration?  Elites in both parties.  And who was responsible for bailing out the banks after the fall 2008 financial crisis?  All elites, although the congressional wing of both parties ran for cover in 2009.  I do not mean to suggest that any of these policy measures were wrong.  But when elites avoid the responsibility of justifying their policies, this can create a political crisis.  The almost unbelievable failure of political elites to justify the bailout measures produced the toxic environment in which the Tea Party flourished.  In many ways, the aftermath of the financial crisis is still with us.  When both parties fail (and do not admit it!), American democracy does not have an easy way forward.

To continue these somewhat fragmentary thoughts, these splits do not necessarily pose a danger if the resulting policies deliver strong economic growth that is reasonably well distributed.  That hasn’t been happening lately.  But I think shorter-term causes are more responsible for our present difficulties.  Elites have to avoid making major mistakes, what I term “policy disasters” in my book Broken Trust (look to the right!).  Policy disasters bring the competence of the entire government into question and so have the potential to reduce trust in government.  And without trust the masses can, well, not revolt but decide to take a hike off the beaten track.

In the UK (and western states like California), the mass public has an outlet for their frustrations, especially with legislative elites – the mechanisms of direct democracy such as the referendum and the initiative.  But the US has no such outlet on the national scale – maybe lucky for us, right?  Or maybe not.  Because the frustration with elites so evident in the Brexit vote are right there in the US for all to see – just not in the context of a one-off referendum.  Instead, an entire political party is now hostage to a populist demagogue who horrifies its nationally-minded leadership.

As a lawyer, I was trained to value the Madisonian representative democracy we have at the national level which deliberately denies the mass public a direct voice in policy.  As an academic who tries to train a skeptical eye on what lawyers think they know, I have my doubts about the elitist assumptions of Madisonian democracy.  What I have called the “populist” (I do not mean late nineteenth century populism) strain in American politics after the early republic runs against the premises of Madisonian democracy.  It is more participatory and anti-elitist, especially anti-expert.  The organization of state governments and their constitutions displays a corresponding alteration of the framers’ handiwork.

If you are skeptical in turn of the populist strain, as many lawyers are, current events are a major warning that the Madisonian system is not self-correcting as advertised.  It requires maintenance and our active engagement.  We must use our own judgment based on the entirety of American history, our own “reflection and choice” in Hamilton’s phrase, to guide our nation (and the world!) into safer waters.  Whether it succeeds or fails, Trump’s candidacy should not lead to a simple reaffirmation of the Constitution but a renewed dedication, similar to that in the progressive era, to the fundamental political and constitutional reform of our basic institutions.  And many different analyses (Howell and Moe’s Relic is the most recent and useful) point to the organization and performance of Congress as the chief culprit.  Congressional reform should be a chief focus of Hillary Clinton’s campaign – a way to demonstrate to the public that she gets it and that business will not be usual in Washington if she is elected.

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