Can a democratic electorate be held accountable?

            The Economist this week raises an important and intriguing issue of democratic theory in a column entitled, “Are the Republicans Mad”? The magazine reached its subject by treating a new book by Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute: It’s Even Worse than it Looks (New York: Basic Books, 2012). Both men are long-time and deeply respected Congressional analysts. Indeed, I had the privilege of studying with Mann while in graduate school. These two authors’ new book argues that the Republican Party is not only behaving as a parliamentary style organization in its lockstep ideological stands, but also, more importantly, has become, “an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of the political opposition.”

            The Economist opines there is nothing to this critique but two analysts, left and right leaning respectively, who disagree with the stance and policy course the GOP has taken. But, having made this claim, the editors appear to realize their argument is too simple by half and so they acknowledge that their own contention stands or falls on whether voters will correct such distortions as those the authors describe when they occur. Ornstein and Mann do contend, too, that the voters are polarized and ill positioned to play such a role. For The Economist writers the challenge in their review of Mann and Ornstein’s work thus became how to maintain the argument that all is really well with the American polity and this book’s critique represents two experienced analysts gone off the rail. To address this rhetorical imperative, the editors effectively set their primary concern aside to contend that, as they put it, “America’s voters shy from hard choices. Lexington’s bet is that Americans will never give the Republicans a clean mandate to drown the sort of state they have now. … They will expect their leaders to muddle through.”

            While this argument is doubtless interesting and provocative, it begs four central questions that Mann and Ornstein raise. First, what if Americans do allow such a majority, which some election analysts are now arguing is indeed quite possible? Do we then “hope for the best” that the leaders who have adopted such an ideology will elect to jettison it in favor of a more prudent course? All recent evidence suggests that likelihood is small. Secondly, and less important perhaps, this position raises the question of whether lawmakers ever take stances that in effect prevent the regime from operating as envisaged. Our political system is one of separate institutions sharing power, and to function it demands compromise. It was not constructed to accommodate lock-step rigidity or the wholesale demonization of the “Other” party (or parties). It seems safe to say that no Founder imagined one party (when those shortly emerged formally and clearly after the nation’s founding) assuming a stance of intractable opposition to virtually anything another offered, nor a party simply declaring as illegitimate all policy not fitting its current ideological view, even when its architects were members of its own party (as now occurs daily among Republicans). This understanding was so, despite the often-bitter differences among political leaders of the time.

            Third, and more deeply, The Economist editors, in their critique, effectively refused to hold American voters accountable for the choices they have made and may make. The editors’ tautological argument rests on the view the nation would somehow muddle through and that voters’ desire for low taxes and high services makes “realistic” sense (since voters hold such a desire, it cannot be easily changed and so, therefore, it is “realistic” so to assume) and in any case, the opportunity costs of proceeding in such a fashion for decades can somehow be borne by future generations.

            Fourth, it strikes me that the magazine’s editors are not alone in their belief that their position is “realistic.” Again, their primary argument seems to be that it is “realistic” to accept voters where they are, even when one notes at the same time that the population’s basic stance makes no sense. In this view, one must begin with what voters want. Doing so does not demand that one inquire if what voters ask is either intelligent or prudent in light of either the scale of the polity’s problems or the implications of certain policy courses on offer in its political dialogue. The Economist and others who adopt similar stands, address neither of these core questions.

            Meanwhile, Mann and Ornstein point not to simple policy disagreements, but to the increasing possibility that the party system is no longer working and the nation’s voters are collectively ill equipped to place it back on course. In short, the primary question The Economist steadfastly avoids in its column is whether one can ever hold a democratic citizenry accountable for the frailties and condition of its regime. Mann and Ornstein, as many democratic theorists before them, argue one can and must ask just such a question, but of course, doing so might prove wildly unpopular with the electorate. Small wonder The Economist’s editors saw fit not to raise so vexing a question. Far better to tar the messenger than to address so complex a concern; it is always easier in democratic debate to find a way to blame everyone and everything other than the arbiter, who, after all, wields ultimate power at the ballot box. But perhaps we should permit ourselves, as ardent advocates, to examine all dimensions of democratic governance if we are to be best positioned to preserve it. The last listed would seem our most appropriate collective lodestar and not an ill-conceived effort to justify retrospectively whatever obtains as “appropriate” and “realistic.”