Thursday, December 15, 2016

Globalization and Constitutional Democracy

Mark Graber

Consider the following as a candidate for “normalization” or the “new political correctness.”

Globalization is inevitable.  This inevitable globalization as inevitably produces and exacerbates severe economic inequality.  No sane political actor can do anything about this rising inequality nor should any sane political actor want to seriously combat this rising inequality.  The only legitimate subject for debate is whether natural processes will ensure that some benefits of globalization trickle down to less fortunate citizens (Republicans) or whether some government intervention is necessary to ensure that most persons enjoy at least some benefits of globalization (Democrats).

On the one hand, I do not think I will be thrown out of the next faculty meeting, nor be allowed to renew my membership in the American Political Science Association nor otherwise become a pariah if I question whether government should not and cannot make efforts to combat the severe economic inequalities caused by globalization. On the other hand, I am struck by the way that a major effort was made to place Bernie Sanders out of the mainstream in large part because he was the only candidate for the presidency who questioned the above candidate for political correctness.  As the opprobrium attached to "class warfare," issues of economic inequality have taken a back seat when the subject turns to the present crisis of American constitutional democracy.

The immediate constitutional crisis may be some combination of the election of Donald Trump, who fails to meet any constitutional standard for the presidency, save a technical victory under the rules governing presidential election, and a Republican Party that combines Trump’s disdain for basic science with a preference for code words as opposed to Trump’s more explicit bigotry.  The long term constitutional crisis is that the United States (and many constitutional democracies elsewhere) are experiencing levels of economic inequality that most empirical theories suggest are inconsistent with the practical operation of constitutional democracy. 

Constitutional democracy functions best when the vast majority of citizens have several characteristics.  First, they are sufficiently well off that life normally is not limited by the struggle to maintain a decent living space, maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, and provide one’s children with the education they will need to maintain a decent living space, etc.  Second, they are nevertheless not immune to the vagaries of the economic cycle.   Most citizens have good faith reasons for thinking their lives may be transformed into a struggle for basic necessities during an economic downturn, but that they may be able to leave that struggle for basic necessities far behind during an economic upturn. 

The United States increasingly lacks these prerequisites of a constitutional democracy.  A small but increasing number of Americans (myself included) know about economic downturns only from the newspapers (or, increasingly, the internet).  An increasing majority of Americans live lives that consist or more or less successful struggles for basic necessities, without much hope that an economic upturn will do more than increase the probability that those struggles will be temporarily successful and without much hope that their children will do much more than struggle for basic necessities.  We live, in short, in Ronald Reagan’s universe, a universe in which the right to become rich that Reagan trumpeted so frequently has become at least of equal importance to the right to live a fully human life.  In this universe, the institutions of constitutional democracy, which allow ordinary persons to influence politics have become enfeebled.  Restoring constitutional democracy is less a matter of getting rid of the class clown as president than restoring such institutions as unions that enabled ordinary people to help shape policies aimed at created the economic perquisites for citizens of a constitutional democracy.

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