Ira Katznelson raises unsettling questions about the prospects for liberal democracy globally. I will confine my observations to reflections on the American case.
Katznelson’s lamentation for the failings of legislative representation—the Congress in particular—echoes that of another frustrated commentator on the American political scene more than a century ago. In his doctoral dissertation, published in 1885 as Congressional Government, the young Woodrow Wilson delivered a scalding indictment of petty corruption, gross ineptitude, and outright fatuity on Capitol Hill. He fulminated not merely against the malfeasance of Gilded Age legislators, but also against the very constitutional architecture of the republic.
The U.S. government, Wilson argued, was deliberately crafted to guarantee inertia and ineffectiveness. It seemed irrelevant in light of the urgent challenges of the day, including immigration, inequality, race relations, and foreign policy (a bill of particulars uncannily similar to Katznelson’s). Congress—a stagnant slough of narrow parochialism, intentional opacity, and political unaccountability—was his principal target, but his deeper disillusionment was with the Founders’ design of a government constitutionally constrained from developing into a modern, muscular, positive state.
Americans have long complained that the system is designed to fail.
Wilson—and Katznelson—might have recollected Henry Adams’s incisive dictum: “The great object of terror and suspicion to the people of the thirteen provinces was power; not merely power in the hands of a president or a prince, of one assembly or of several, of many citizens or few, but power in the abstract, wherever it existed and under whatever name it was known.” Consequently, the leaders of the newly independent United States created a government whose power was ingeniously jacketed. Among those who struggled against that jacketing was Abraham Lincoln, who said in 1864, “It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its own existence in great emergencies.”
Generations of schoolchildren have been taught to reverence that system of clever checks and balances. But many critics today, sharing Wilson’s impatience with the messy sluggishness of American politics, join Francis Fukuyama in condemning a pathetically ineffectual “vetocracy.”
Yet, despite the ideational legacy and the purposely straitened institutional framework of U.S. government, Americans have on several occasions breathed life into their apparently moribund political apparatus. Lincoln oversaw a government that marshaled sufficient resources to prevail in the Civil War. Wilson’s presidency crowned the Progressive Era’s impressive expansion of American state capacity, including new government instrumentalities commensurate with the scale and complexity of an urban, industrialized nation with expanding global interests: the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Reserve, and the elements of what eventually became the Food and Drug Administration, not to mention launching an expeditionary navy and mobilizing for a major foreign war in 1917.
The New Deal generation, of course, dramatically advanced the agenda of fashioning a state apposite to the conditions of modern society—an agenda further pursued in the Eisenhower, Johnson, and Obama administrations (think Interstate Highway Act, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act).
It is true that the United States offers scant social provision (if that is the proper metric for assessing the health of the state), and few if any societies have, in the past several decades, adopted new constitutions on the American model. Most have opted for parliamentary systems, eschewing the separation of the legislative and executive functions that lies at the heart of American governance.
Yet history reminds us that our allegedly sclerotic political contraption can sometimes be galvanized into effective action—if sporadically and often at the cusp of catastrophe, as during the Great Depression. The task of scholarship is to identify the precise circumstances, practices, and personalities that made those historical moments possible and to explore their application to the present. No doubt the characteristics of our own time—including media-abetted cultural segmentation, money-driven asymmetries in access to power, and the challenges posed to responsive and responsible representation by the sheer scale of a society comprising more than 300 million citizens operating in a transformative globalized environment—make for a formidable set of challenges. But I am betting there is still resilience in our venerable system, if we but have the wit to comprehend its essential nature and the will to make it work. It has happened before.