Political Development
Populist Illusions and Pluralist Realities

Efforts at reform that maximize democratic access fail to acknowledge the limits of citizen capacity and interest.

Appeared in: Volume 10, Number 2 | Published on: October 3, 2014
Bruce E. Cain is a professor of political science and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. This essay is an adapted excerpt from his forthcoming book, Democracy More or Less: America’s Political Reform Quandary (Cambridge University Press).
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  • Fat_Man

    Bring back the Forty Shilling Freehold.

  • Finally, a well argued case of how the pernicious “vetocracy” of America (to use Fukuyama’s apt word for modern America) is subverting the age-old checks-and-balances, in which men men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton have designed it. And of course, these two men, couldn’t have foreseen how that system can easily fall pray to an institutional gaming abuse in which the current gridlock Washington is the finest example of it.

    Furthermore, the longer this deliberate gridlock continues in Washington the quicker Democracy itself will be discredited in the eyes of the American, who is already not that impressed with the political system as it is. However, I really can’t see a way out of this impasse, since at the heart of this problem is a deeply-divided nation (on ideology, on cultural terrain, on societal outlook, on economical view, and finally, on what the heck the constitution was supposed to be about).

    Hence, so long as that hyper-partisan underlying reality is there, then, the system will show that reality in either in the form of Gridlock at it’s highest level, or it will show in the form of endless litigation against any action by any institution, such the endless suing of the current Obama’s healthcare (ACA) by anyone in the land, without even needing to show whether you have any standing to litigate, or even, whether damage was done to you, specifically, by the passing of the health-care.

    All in all, I really think American’s is flirting with a complete system failure the longer they indulge on what divides them as opposed to fashioning some sort of a political compromised modus-vivendi on what unites them, on a broad terms.

  • qet

    This essay is far too analytical and mechanistic, reasoning on the basis of ideal types and categories whose properties and relations exist only in the writings of other professional academics. It resembles nothing so much as a structure assembled using standard Lego(R) block concepts. It confirms again the truth of Rousseau’s observation that “it is by dint of studying man that we have made it impossible for us to know him.” And the author’s perspicacity would be greatly improved by a dose of cynicism. Those insisting in our politics on “more democracy” are not analysts but actors, seeking power and influence (just as we all do). “Democracy is the aristocracy of a few orators,” Hobbes wrote, and these “more democracy” promoters are merely those orators seeking to reform our politics to enable their aristocracy.

  • Arkeygeezer

    “A good political system manages disagreement and forges what it can out of division and cleavages.”
    I submit that this is exactly what is happening in our political system. You had a
    Democratic majority, led by a socialist President that went way overboard on a liberal agenda. That situation is now resolving itself. Further efforts to advance the liberal agenda are being stopped. The agenda already passed will be modified to suit the American electorate, and a middle ground forged out of the division and cleavage.

    • On the contrary, and I would even go as far as to say, that what is happening, is essentially a glorified form of “systemic gridlock”, where each party put the brakes on the other party’s agenda. Hence, today, Democrats have been put through the wringer where their agenda of the nations was comprehensively stopped, or at least, was subjected to a multi-layered “vetocracy”.

      And, tomorrow, if the GOP wins both the senate, the house, and the white-house, then the same tactics (call it multi-front-political-skirmishing) will be done to their agenda, regardless of how sensible their political platform may be or how desirable it is for majority of Americans.

      Hence, you can glorify a government that stand still (and even call it the very definition of “small state”). But in the modern America of post-industrial economy (as opposed to agrarian’s nirvana of Virginia in late 18th century) a government that does nothing for it’s citizens (because it’s gridlocked) is as good as government that effectively decided to go out of the business of governing. And, that, my friend, is the very definition of “political decay”.

      • Arkeygeezer

        Then the U.S.A. has been in “political decay” for the past 200+ years, yet we have a society with freedom and liberty; one which accommodates people of all faiths, races, and political persuasions; and one which has made remarkable social and economic progress. In our history we have had only one civil war, and that one did not change our form of government.

        Our government has never stood still and continues to legislate changes that benefit the majority of our people. It may not be one with which either you or I are in total agreement, and it may be messy and frustrating, but it works.

        • No, I think, you only have to compare how US’s congress wasn’t in a position to pass a decent budget since 2008, or even the number of political appointees that are still bending after 6 years in in which Obama’s administration seems to be in power without getting the senate to even bring these appointees for an up or down vote at the floor of the senate.

          Furthermore, observe, how that political play-book, will be exactly, what the democrats in their turn will do to any GOP-led white-house, if and when, the GOP get into the executive branch. Also, pay attention to the number of senate filibuster that essentially stops any active government happening at any cost. Or even how any major social reform (be it tax reform, or be it entitlement reform) will never be able to be done if matters remains as they are.

          And, this as you know wasn’t the case even a generation ago. No, my friend, the character of American political reality has changed for the worse. And no government (led by any party) will ever again be allow to do anything substantial going forward.

          And, finally, you only have see how Obama’s health-care (ACA) is still not out of the woods yet, despite the fact that it has been several years since it was enacted. And, if the GOP wins all branches of government, in 2016 election, then, it’s likely (as they have promised to do so) that they will repeal the whole damn thing; which in turn will mean the next time around the democrats wins all three branches of the government, they in turn will also repeal all that was done before them by the GOP.

          Hence, things being in this way of a “Zero-Sum-game” political circularity, then one can say, that nothing was ever going to be established across the nation by one party, without been taken apart in the following circle of election by the other party. And, this in turn is indicative of political system that can’t agree on anything lasting, which is another way of saying, a political decay and the notion of disassociation of a national “political-contract”, which could be lasting, is at it’s most acute phase.

          • Arkeygeezer

            So what is your solution to this terrible problem?

        • Arkeygeezer

          Hi Dhako,
          You seem to be very good at identifying problems; but rather poor on identifying solutions!
          Come on man, show us what you have!

  • Anthony

    The author’s essay covers a great deal of electoral and structural American political arrangements. Though as an adapted excerpt from a more extensive book, one comments cautiously. At one level, essay reprises arguments and observations revealed in Francis Fukuyama’s essays – Political Order and Political Decay, and The Decay of American Political Institutions. Nonetheless, Bruce Cain provides additional access points and political formulations to consider vis-a-vis our democratic system and its developed institutional inadequacies. In turn he infers that while institutional inadequacy is involved, the broad public may just be overwhelmed (or lack capacity and not interested) – “faced with the high demands of modern citizenship, people either retreat into other pursuits entirely (the citizen slacker phenomenon, or some have called rational apathy) or depend upon cues and cognitive shortcuts from political parties, interests groups, talk radio, and cable-TV celebrities to guide them through the complexities of modern government.”

    Essentially, Populist Illusions and Pluralist Realities infers that institutional capture results when (in democracy) broad public may not be seriously concerned about it governmental destiny. As has been noted, “what we have before us is an operative and formal political-legal system. The latter, it should be perfectly understood, is quite well devised to respond in an orderly, systematic way to the collective will of the populace. The operative system, the real system – controlled by corporation-subsidized politicians – came into being and prevailed owing simply to the inability of the electorate to understand and use properly the system offered.” In other words, reforming reform must still grapple with that conundrum whether neo pluralism or neo populism are operative. Perhaps, author more fully explicates in book.

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