Ira Katznelson is onto something: a loss of faith in liberal democracy that is puzzling given the absence of a strong rival to replace it. Yet he makes little effort to explain this disillusionment beyond pointing to the failure of today’s representative assemblies to legislate well. He calls for a rejuvenation of democratic legislatures but fails to ask what structural or institutional problems caused them to break down in the first place. And how is it possible, in an essay on the deterioration of democratic politics, that the word “party” appears only once, and in passing?
There has always been concern for public faith in liberal democracy. Anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution because they believed government on such a large scale could never earn or keep the public’s “affection.” The argument rested on a keen appreciation of democratic politics as it had until then been practiced: a profoundly local system that privileged personal relations over political agendas. Representatives who were not personally known by voters, Anti-Federalists predicted, would fail to contain the divisive strains and mistrust that inevitably emerge in a large population with eclectic attitudes and conflicting interests.
Global challenges may be beyond the capacity of national legislatures.
Federalists dismissed these concerns. As Alexander Hamilton reasoned, “Confidence in . . . a government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness or badness of its administration.” The new Constitution would provide the people with good government, earning their confidence.
But securing stable government under the new Constitution turned out to be exactly the ordeal Anti-Federalists feared. Domestic political debate achieved a level of ferocity and acrimony exceeded only in the run-up to the Civil War (and, perhaps, today). Despite prosperity, by the end of the 1790s, talk of disunion and secession was rife, with the commander of the U.S. Army pondering whether to invade Virginia and governors in several states anxiously organizing their militias.
Politics settled, but only because that first generation blundered into a form of political organization that would have appalled them in 1787: the political party. Organized parties made possible liberal democracy, which has never succeeded anywhere without a competitive party system. When effective, parties connect people to national politics in a meaningful way and simultaneously provide an institutional framework for formulating issues and agendas, managing (metaphorical) negotiations between representatives and constituents and among constituents themselves, and organizing the government internally to get things done.
In some respects, parties today appear more powerful than ever, but in fact the past few decades have witnessed their gradual decline. Parties no longer have the institutional prowess or independence from donors and elected officials to play their necessary role, and as they have shriveled so too has public confidence in government.
This decline didn’t happen on its own. Naïve, well-meaning democratic idealists engineered the downfall. They blamed parties for what seemed wrong in politics and so made them weaker, for instance through campaign finance reform aimed at replacing party-centered fundraising with a candidate-centered approach. This made governance less effective, for which we blamed the parties again and weakened them still more by shifting campaign finance toward independent expenditures. Rebuilding functional parties, the core institution of republican government, won’t cure all our ills, but I cannot think of a better place to start.
Unless it is already too late. Montesquieu was surely right when he intuited that the “spirit” of the laws must fit the political, social, cultural, and economic conditions of society. Liberal democracy could not have worked in medieval Europe because it is unsuited to that sort of society. Democracy emerged only as society changed—as conditions evolved to make feasible and even preferable a concept of popular government based on autonomous individuals with inalienable rights. There is, however, no more reason to think that democracy is the end of history than there was to think that history ended with Imperial Rome or feudalism. Revolutions in technology and communications have fostered economic, social, cultural, and political interdependence on a scale unlike anything in history and given rise to problems that require long-term, global commitments of a type democratic governments are not known for producing.
Maybe our governance problems are bigger than dysfunctional political parties. Maybe the challenges of our world have grown beyond the capacity of representative national legislatures. Could the disillusionment Katznelson laments be misplaced anxiety about a much larger shift, one difficult for people living inside it to perceive? Could liberal democracy be starting to go the way of feudalism?