Democracy and the Institutions of Democracy

Democracy and the Institutions of Democracy
Harry Kresky

The first set of demands made by the people of Egypt after Mubarak stepped aside was that the army suspend the constitution and dissolve parliament. At the same time the punditry here in the U.S. are saying that in order for the Egyptian revolution to bring viable democracy to that country, they need the “institutions” of democracy. But don’t these institutions include a constitution and a parliament?

Significantly, the first institution the pundits call for in Egypt is political parties. But here in America the people are fed up with the role the parties are playing in our democracy.

So what is the relationship between democracy and the “institutions of democracy”? In America a case can be made that the Constitution was adopted to curb the excesses of democracy. The period after the revolution was one of great unrest. In Massachusetts in 1786 a poor farmer, Daniel Shays, led a rebellion against the taxes and other levies imposed on him and those like him to pay off the revolution’s debt to wealthy European interests that had loaned money to support the war against England. In western Pennsylvania several years later, small distillers refused to pay an excise tax levied by the new national government established by the Constitution. Both rebellions were suppressed.

In No. 85 of the Federalist Papers, written by and on behalf of those advocating for the adoption of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton emphasized the need to restrain “local factions and insurrections,” and prevent the undermining of “the foundations of property and credit.” That the Constitution could not win approval without the addition of a Bill of Rights to protect citizens against the government it established, says much about the nature of the document and the system it put in place.

It was not long after the adoption of the Constitution that the two political parties developed. The Federalists, based in the Northeast and New England represented commercial interests and advocated for a strong national government and a pro-business economic policy, including the formation of a national bank. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were the founding fathers associated with the Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party (soon to become the Democratic Party) which represented an alliance of white small farmers and wealthy southern slaveholders.

For the next 200 years these two parties (and, in the case of the Federalists, its successors, first the Whigs and then the Republicans) were the vehicles by which the conflicts that led to the adoption of the Constitution were mediated and organized. Their constituencies varied and the particular issues they championed changed with the country’s unfolding history.

In their role as mediators of political conflict, the parties set the boundaries of permissible dialogue and the limits of movements for social change. During the post civil war period, the Republican Party that had elected Abraham Lincoln who led the country through the Civil War and signed the Emancipation Proclamation initially supported freed slaves in “reconstructing” the South. The period saw the election of many Blacks to public office and significant progress in education and economic development. This provoked a backlash led by the Democratic Party and some of its most unsavory allies, like the Ku Klux Klan. In 1876 the Republicans and Democrats reached a deal where the Democratic Party would withdraw its opposition to the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, in a closely contested election, in exchange for pulling back from support for the empowerment of African Americans in the South. After Hayes took office federal troops were withdrawn from the southern states.

In 1896 the Democratic Party co-opted the anti-capitalist populist movement by nominating its most eloquent spokesperson, William Jennings Bryant, as its presidential candidate. Bryant lost then and in two subsequent elections, but both parties cooperated in passing a series of reforms implemented by President Theodore Roosevelt to curb some of the worst excesses of rapidly growing industrial capital through, for example, the passage of the Sherman Anti-trust Act. Similarly, in the 1930’s the Democrats, with Teddy’s cousin, Franklin, in the White House, co-opted the pro-socialist ferment catalyzed by the Great Depression through official support for expanding trade unionism and the introduction of social security. The unions today function more as an interest group and a key part of the Democratic electoral coalition than as a leadership force for progressive change. A similar process occurred during the 1960’s when the various movements for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights became competing constituencies within the Democratic Party.

The Parties would argue that they were the vehicles for social change. And in a sense they were, although it is more honest to say that they responded to movements for social change by accommodating them within the existing constitutional framework. Socialism would have meant nationalization of industry something the Constitution does not allow as President Truman would later learn when he tried to seize the steel mills to settle a massive strike in 1952.

The parties claim to be the instruments of democratic change is belied by their functioning in an increasingly undemocratic manner. In the early 20th century, widespread outrage over the selection of candidates from alderman to President by party bosses in “smoke filled rooms,” led to the passage of laws requiring candidates to be elected by primary elections open to all party members. A target of the civil rights movement in the mid twentieth century was the refusal by Democratic Parties in the South to allow African Americans to participate. Given the dominance of the Democratic Party in that era in the southern states, exclusion from the Democratic primary meant exclusion for the electoral process altogether. It took a series of Supreme Court decisions and a mass civil rights movement followed by the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to substantially change the situation in the southern states.

In times of social progress, it is easier for the parties to present themselves as vehicles for fulfilling the peoples’ goals and aspirations. In recent years, however, the country has experienced a severe economic recession and political and policy stalemate. And the parties themselves are identified by more and more Americans as an impediment, not a vehicle for solving the pressing problems we face. And some of the institutions of democracy that at one time were reforms, are themselves becoming impediments to breaking the gridlock.

A key example is the primary system. The primaries in both parties have been captured by a small number of hard core party activists and ideologically driven elements. In the Democratic Party, the public service unions dominate; in the Republican Party it is social conservatives. Turnout in some states is as low as 10 percent of party members. Given the growing number of independents, the percentage, measured against the total electorate is significantly lower. In California some 3.5 million voters are not members of a political party. In New York, the number is 2.4 million. In response to this situation, the voters of California recently passed, by referendum, a law that abolished party primaries, replacing them with a first round in which all candidates are on an equal footing and all voters can participate. The top two go on to the general election. In New York and other closed primary states, nonaffiliated voters are barred from the primary where the candidates on the general ballot are chosen. And, like in the pre-civil rights movement south, in areas were one party dominates, the outcome of the primary determines who is elected.

Our elected officials are, therefore, often the most partisan elements in each party and they bring their partisanship into the halls of Congress and state legislatures. There is a growing democracy movement in America that is addressing this political and policy impasse. In doing so, they are challenging some of the institutions of democracy, in particular the parties, and the primary system that 100 years ago was a democratic reform, but now is a barrier to the exercise of democracy.

This movement is led by independents who recognize that the creative and innovative solutions demanded by the current circumstances requires breaking the parties’ hold on the government and the electoral process. As in Egypt, the movement for democracy pushes up against and demands transformation of the “institutions of democracy.”

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