In his “Democracy Wish”, Monroe dedicates himself to answering the question of how our nation, so steadily dreadful of a large and unaccountable government has ironically ended up with exactly what we – for all of our history – have tried to avoid. His answer to this unsettling question rests in the dissonance between the two traditions that have sculpted our political history. The “yearning” for people power on behalf of the civic republicans and the “dread” of public power on behalf of the classical liberals. According to Morone, this sort of cognitive dissonance, or better, Orwellian Doublethink, fused with the cyclical struggle between these traditions has resulted in a stalemate between them; a stalemate that has bequeathed neither a limited government nor a self-governed social democracy (thus both camps are displeased). Instead, we are left with a very unpopular congress and ever expansive federal government, comprised of unaccountable and dysfunctional institutions that are managed by unelected technocrats. Our “dense” government and its opaque Institutions take little thought into the opinions of every day citizens, and the participation of the citizenry in them is reduced to the trivial or non-existence. Morone’s insight is not in just identifying the existence of these two traditions, but in how the conflict between them through a vicious cycle, repeated time and time again, has given rise to our bloated bureaucratic state. Time and time again, the waves of uprising and populist reform from democratic wishing, is thwarted and sometimes beaten back by liberal “dread” (arising from both ideological and institutional forces) that manifest in larger bureaucracies, bloated government, which in turn dilute social transformation and muddle the will of the people.
To Monroe, American’s fear of public power (the dread) is to blame for the sorry state of things. For Morone, the overarching and dominate tenet of American political thought is the suspicion of large government (because government in any form has always been equated to an infringement of rights and liberties – albeit that our history is littered with examples of the federal government intervening to protect these rights and liberties). Since our nation’s founding the “dread” of government, along with its denial of authority to political leaders can be found in the ideology of the body politic, and in the anti-democratic design of the American government.
A central argument that Morone makes in achieving the stronger democracy he is calling for begins with American’s moving beyond our ideological fear of public power, and reforming and updating the fragmented (checks and balances) design of the Hamiltonian and Madisonian government . For he believes that the political architecture laid out in the federalist papers favors complacency and gridlock, and prevents the big and necessary changes from happening. Thus, both a paradigm shift in our ideology and a reform of our government structure is needed if we are to ever have a government capable of resolving the collective actions problems that we face today (like climate change, health care).
In arguing this point, Monroe is aligning himself with a critique that is common amongst more “yearning” leaning historians and political thinkers. These individuals charge the federalist government established in the constitution as being aristocratic, and claim that the document itself was intended to put a check on democracy and deliver power to the “elite moneyed interests”. Or as Madison defined them in the Constitutional convention – “the wealth of the nation”. To this crowd America is not a democracy, and nor was it ever intended to be, and technically speaking they are correct. In fact, the government established by the constitution is not a democracy but a “polyarchy”, in which most power has both historically and presently resided within the moneyed elite(Although this is not mandated in law-like the English nobility- it has just always been the case, and for obvious reasons). Not only were the most powerful positions in our national government reserved for some of the richest men in our nation(George Washington-the richest man in the nation at the time became our first president- fast forward to today were over 90% of congressman and senators are millionaires) , but the design itself had many checks on democracy. For instance, suffrage was granted to only white male property owners. The most powerful branch of the legislature was the senate – the branch that is the most removed from the people (and in the constitution senators were not elected directly by the people but through state legislatures). According to Madison, the intention of this design was to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”.
The intent of the federalist design was quite clear, the rebellious and independent farmers had to be taught that the ideals of the revolutionary pamphlets were not to be taken seriously, and the common people were not to be represented by countrymen like themselves. And not surprisingly, the fruition of such a design is a government completely oblivious to public opinion (as one study found here demonstrates that the popular will has statistically no input on public policy –)
I found Morone’s “Democracy Wish” to be very instructive after studying the conflict between the Anti- Federalists and the Federalists; I say that because Morone’s central argument seems to embody both traditions. His call for a more participatory and direct democracy is in part a Thomas Paine-Thomas Jefferson plea for civic republicanism, while his appeal to a stronger central government is a Hamiltonian plea for federalism. I am very sympathetic to his suggestion to rethink the design of our federal government, and his desire to infuse our institutions with more workable forms of popular participation and substantial democratic politics- I have always been sympathetic to the notion that democracy does not end at the ballot box, and as citizens we should play an active role in the shaping of policies and institutions that effect our lives. Although I would lament that Morone is rather insufficient to the details of exactly what the contours of these participatory institutions would look like, and instead offers rather vague calls for more communitarian populism. How would they be less technocratic and more representative? When citizens are brought “indoors”, how would the functioning of government change? I do see some appeal in having qualified individuals presiding over our institutions – I don’t want Joe the plumber running the EPA or the department of education. The fundamental question is what these new institutions will look like in practice? Similarly, his call for a more “centered” instead of “dense” government is a little vague as well, the thought of an even more powerful state with 21st century technology is rather scary without sufficient details and caveats.