Just before dawn-- right around the time our post about how Americans have turned against the Supreme Court went up-- the NY Times published a guest post by legal scholar Richard Pildes, on "the threats posed by democratic backsliding and the rise of illiberal forces," Why So Many Democracies Are Floundering. His point is that people are turning away from democracy, a movement that is manifesting itself as a pervasive fragmentation of democratic politics. And, of course, it's easiest to look at the Republican Party and see this at play, but it isn't as though it doesn't exist within the Democratic Party either. Democratic voters are as confused and preoccupied as everyone else and have undermined their own values by looking for leadership from putridly corrupt conservative politicians. And it isn't just Manchin and Sinema who are destroying the foundations of the Democratic Party and America's ability to stand up to the advent of fascism. Listen to Bernie explain why the party is-- even if not as overtly as the GOP-- crumbling:
"Political fragmentation," Pildes wrote, "is the dispersion of political power into so many different hands and centers of power that it becomes difficult for democratic governments to function effectively," something Biden saw as the challenge to win what he called the "battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies." Pildes mistakenly called today's political environment a Democratic Party "unified control of government," a joke when you consider that the Democrats most certainly do not control the Senate nor state governments in most states, including many of the biggest ones, where governments are overtly hostile to the Democratic Party-- Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Ohio. His point, though, is that even with what he decided to call "unified control of government, the internal divisions of the Democratic Party postponed passage of his bipartisan infrastructure bill for several months and have made it uncertain which parts, if any, of the Build Back Better proposal will be enacted." OK, fair enough. He then warned that:
When democratic governments seem incapable of delivering on their promises, this failure can lead to alienation, resignation, distrust and withdrawal among many citizens. It can also trigger demands for authoritarian leaders who promise to cut through messy politics. At an even greater extreme, it can lead people to question democracy itself and become open to anti-democratic systems of government.
And this isn't just a problem in the U.S. It's plaguing Western democracies which are "experiencing the unraveling of the traditionally dominant center-left and center-right major parties and coalitions that have governed since World War II. Support for these parties has splintered into new parties of the right and left, along with others with less-easily defined ideological elements. From 2015 to 2017, over 30 new political parties entered European parliaments. Across European democracies, the percentage of people who identify strongly with a political party or are members of one has declined precipitously. The effects on the ability to govern have been dramatic."
The same forces driving fragmentation in other democracies are also roiling the United States, though our election structures make effective third parties highly unlikely. Here the forces of fragmentation get channeled within the two major parties. The most dramatic example on the Republican side is that when the party controlled the House from 2011 to 2019, it devoured two of its own speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Mr. Boehner’s memoir portrays a party caucus so internally fragmented as to be ungovernable.
And those were, relatively at least, the good old days! Today, with the weakest Republican congressional leader since Bob Michel (1981-1995) fumbling pathetically for strictly personal advancement, the dominant politics within the House GOP have turned decidedly anti-democratic, decidedly authoritarian and fascist. The Republican Party agenda, at least in the House, is no longer controlled by experienced senior politicians but by a rabble of profoundly ignorant neo-Nazis and Q-Anon believers like Marjorie Traitor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Madison Cawthorn (an actual Nazi, no "neo" needed), Paul Gosar, Matt Gaetz, Gym Jordan, Andy Biggs, Louie Gohmert, Scott Perry, Jody Hice, Ronny Jackson, Bob Good, Michael Cloud, Andy Harris...
Large structural forces have driven the fragmentation of politics throughout the West. On the economic front, the forces include globalization’s contribution to the stagnation of middle- and working-class incomes, rising inequality and outrage over the 2008 financial crisis. On the cultural side: conflicts over immigration, nationalism and other issues.
Since the New Deal in the United States and World War II in Europe, the parties of the left had represented less affluent, less educated voters. Now those voters are becoming the base of parties on the right, with more affluent, more educated voters shifting to parties on the left. Major parties are struggling to figure out how to patch together winning coalitions in the midst of this shattering transformation.
The communications revolution is also a major force generating the disabling fragmentation of politics. Across Europe, it has given rise to loosely organized, leaderless protest movements that disrupt politics and give birth to other parties-- but make effective government harder to achieve.
In the United States, the new communications era has enabled the rise of free-agent politicians. A Congress with more free agents is more difficult to govern. Even in their first years in office, individual members of Congress (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ted Cruz) no longer need to work their way up through the party or serve on major committees to attract national visibility and influence.
Through cable television and social media, they can find and construct their own national constituencies. Through internet fund-raising (particularly small donations), politicians (particularly from the extremes) can become effective fund-raising machines on their own. In this era, party leaders lack the leverage they once had to force party members to accept the party line. That is why speakers of the House resign or reschedule votes on which they cannot deliver.
The political fragmentation that now characterizes nearly all Western democracies reflects deep dissatisfaction with the ability of traditional parties and governments to deliver effective policies. Yet perversely, this fragmentation makes it all the more difficult for governments to do so. Mr. Biden is right: Democracies must figure out how to overcome the forces of fragmentation to show they once again can deliver effective government.
Democratic presidential primary voters made absolutely disastrous choices in 2016 and again in 2020. They could have chosen someone meaningful and values-driven instead of the likes of Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.