The Deep Structure of Political CrisisRoundup
tags: neoliberalism, Political theory, Postindustrial Society
Ruth Berins Collier is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
The United States faces a democratic crisis, as we have been told for several years now. But what exactly does this mean? On the anniversary of the January 6 attempted coup, the answer may seem obvious: the crisis is perhaps most dramatically seen in the transformation of the national Republican Party, which has abandoned a policy-making role for one that simply seeks power. To this end, it has become intent on exploiting vulnerable state-level institutions to suppress votes, gerrymander districts, and allow partisan actors to overturn the popular vote.
But to understand the threat of democratic backsliding in the United States, it is essential to untangle a variety of explanations of our contemporary crisis. These range from the most proximate to the more structural, and all are important. While most American analysts have focused on the former, however, we want to focus on the latter. We argue, in particular, that the economic transition from industrialism to post-industrialism may be less conducive to democracy, or at least provides an explanation for some important threats to democracy that we are witnessing today. Such a lens puts the analysis of the U.S. crisis in comparative perspective, allowing us to see some common threats across rich, historic democracies as well as the specific features that account for the extreme form it takes in our country.
To be sure, the sense of alarm is partly due to the specific behavior of a particular individual, Donald Trump, who entrepreneurially and through dint of personality mobilized a following and exploited openings in the U.S. party system. This explanation is emphasized in literature on the role of leadership and a tradition of analyzing the impact of the Metternichs and Bismarks as well as the Hitlers and Stalins of the world. Trump is a unique, norm-breaking, daring, and mobilizing figure with a particular psychology, which is certainly part of the picture. His ability to mobilize supporters—especially their animus and resentments—is, in one classic image, the narrow end of a causal funnel of explanation that goes from proximate factors to deeper and longer-term factors as it widens.
In fact, as many have noted, Trump is as much the outcome as the cause of transformations in the Republican Party, which go back at least to Newt Gingrich, under whose leadership it became an anti-system party—a “destructive and delegitimizing force,” as Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein put it in 2016. One is thus drawn to look at less contingent, less proximate factors.
Widening the funnel, we come to an institutional argument. The Republican Party has exploited the non-majoritarian institutions of American politics, while single-member, winner-take-all legislative districts and the Electoral College ensure that the United States will be a two-party system that results in the greatest representational distortion (the disparity between the percentage of votes and the distribution of legislative seats) among mature democracies. Indeed, as widely noted, the U.S. Senate has become increasingly minoritarian, in that a minority of the population elects a majority of the representatives. The contemporary Supreme Court, meanwhile, has increasingly employed the “shadow docket” in conservative rulings, and analysts have begun to talk about a “weaponized” Supreme Court. In the process, the courts have used judicial supremacy to further weaken basic democratic notions of rule of and by the people based on one-person, one vote.
An important feature of this institutional context is the U.S. system of highly decentralized federalism, in which democratic institutions like election administration are put in the hands of state and county governments. Governments at these levels are especially vulnerable to capture by an antidemocratic faction. In a country becoming more racially diverse and more economically unequal, the transformation of the Republican Party into a national antidemocracy coalition has resulted in democratic backsliding in states that the party controls. As one of us has shown quantitatively, democratic backsliding at the state level—including extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression—is driven not by popular opinion within states, but instead by the national Republican Party.
These specifically U.S. institutions, and the distribution of power and the extreme representational distortion that they produce, are clearly important factors in our democratic crisis, as is the country’s unique legacy of racism, based in a history of genocide and slavery. But these two aspects—the individual and the institutional—do not tell the whole story. Indeed, anti-liberal movements have emerged in other countries with very different democratic institutions. The peculiar features of U.S. institutions do go a long way in explaining the extreme form democratic crisis takes in the United States, but given the widespread nature of the challenges, we wish to widen the funnel further still to think about another, deeper line of structural analysis.
Specifically, it is important to recognize how a country’s economic model can organize and disorganize political groups, empowering and disempowering them and shaping the coalitions they form. Industrialism, we argue, was fertile ground for the construction of a pro-democracy coalition, one supported by labor unions; post-industrialism, or at least the transition to post-industrialism, has fragmented such a coalition. The current problem is how to organize a pro-democracy coalition in the face of the Republican assault.
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