In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.--Michael Lynch, Opinionator, New York Times, 10/15/2013
Plato's most important observation in political philosophy is that no constitutional system lasts forever. As Michael Lynch discerns in the important piece that I quote above (it's the concluding paragraph), there are dynamics internal to the democratic process that may lead to its own unraveling. Lynch mentions three distinct ones: (i) if "legislative gridlock" becomes "a fixture of American political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that someone should “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the Congress — will only increase." (ii) When politics stops being perceived to be about (Madisonian) give-and-take, then the sense of shared identity will unravel. (iii) A permanent albeit powerful minority systematically makes normal state functioning impossible--the so-called regular "shut-down strategy." [In (iii) I blend Lynch and Schliesser.]
In response to (i) the Cato's Institute's Roger Pilon, remarks: "Well, that’s already happening – witness the many lawless changes to the Obamacare law that have been unilaterally imposed by the president, without so much as a notice to Congress. But it’s not because of any shutdown threat. It’s because (iv) respect for constitutional limits is today so atrophied." [HT Jason Stanley on Facebook] From context, it is clear that Pilon is thinking of the growth of the welfare state ("special interest juggernaut poured through with one redistributive program after another, leading to the unsustainable war of all against all we see today.") Given his focus on limitations, it is surprising that Pilon does not express concern about the limitless growth of executive power that leads to permanent foreign wars and the surveillance state. Either way, we can recognize in (iv) Hayek's old road to serfdom thesis. But with this particular twist that, rather than edging our way toward totalitarianism, we have already returned to the state of nature ("war of all against all.") Obviously, if we are in the state of nature then the need for a Hobbesian sovereign to get us out of it will be embraced by all minimally rational agents.
(vi) Armies, too, prefer rule by experts rather than messy democracy. All over the world, conscription armies have been replaced by professional armies. That is a recipe for disaster: reflect on the career of Eric Shinseki, who once represented the professionalism and inclusiveness of the US Army. As Army Chief of Staff, he was publicly humiliated by then Defense secretary Rumsfeld. Fast forward, he now serves in the Obama administration. This sequence is terrible. It creates incentives for high ranking military to become associated with particular political factions.
(vii) The growth of extreme inequality. A political community requires some minimal, shared fates and experiences something that is already becoming difficult due to fracturing of mass media. When the inequality gets big enough people may develop entirely different experiences when the rich remove themselves from the possible fate(s) of others. Gated communities and lax campaign finance rules are symbols, unequal protection of the law is the more serious disease. In fact, in the war on drugs the law has been used to repress systematically whole financially and politically under-privileged communities. The more serious disease may also embolden some oligarchic tendencies because it will tempt overconfident elites to think they need not fear violent reprisal.*
I leave it to readers to say if we have already moved beyond the point where it will become difficult to clearly differentiate the United States of America from places like Singapore or Russia (places with elections, free-ish markets, etc.). Even if we are, none of these processes are irreversible.
Lynch and Pilon, who represent classic Federalist and Anti-Federalist themes, are both trapped in a zero-sum logic. And this is exhibited when they describe their favored version of democratic government. Lynch understands it in terms of a "social contract" that generates (applying Margaret Gilbert's work) "joint commitments." This need not be zero-sum, of course, but he understands it in terms of being in the "same boat." And boats are, by definition, zero-sum environments (lots of external constraints that impose scarcity, resource depletion, etc.) By contrast, Pilon thinks of democratic government in terms of "constitutionally limited" rule of law. Again, this need not be zero-sum; yet, he is exclusively focused on the impact of redistribution of existing resources (very zero-sum).
Neither Lynch nor Pilon talks about how to extract us from the logic of zero-sum competing frameworks and the unrelenting focus on resource allocation. This is the most urgent task of political philosophy today in a world in which our contending elites lack even "an ordinary degree of public spirit and integrity" and -- due to American supremacy -- do not feel constrained by external necessity. (The Federalist # 85)
*On Facebook Jason Stanley had reminded me of Lippmann's point that in democracy, elites need not fear violent reprisals by the masses. My concern is that our governments have become extremely sophisticated at preventing and subduing mass violence and this may tempt elites that they can 'hande' the situation and buy the brains to do so.