Why 2021 is Making Me Nervous

John Stuart Mill once gave expression to what he felt was a commonplace, namely that:

a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.

For limited creatures like us, wisdom in politics requires that we face opposition from those who see things differently. Because we are narrow-minded and partial beings, approximating truth in politics must take the form of “the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” 

James Madison was more skeptical of this kind of combat, at least in democratic contexts. He feared that competition between factions (groups organized around sectarian ideologies) might result in one becoming dominant. If it did, a purely democratic government would tyrannically enforce the interests of the dominant faction, at the expense of the common good. The remedy, Madison thought, was to adopt a republican constitution capable of cooling factional disagreement. Only a system of checks and balances, including a formal separation of powers, could stop a dominant faction from becoming tyrannical.

And yet Madison was clear that this remedy was unlikely to be successful absent a diverse civil society composed of competing factions vying for representation in government. Inspired by Mill, we might say something somewhat stronger: the powers of government, once separated, ought not to be distinct merely in the sense that they lie in different hands, but also in the sense that those in whose hands they lie have conflicting visions—some conservative, some progressive, say. Without this tension, we might worry that political change will happen more quickly and with less foresight and minority input than is desirable.

It’s true, of course, that executive, legislative, and judicial allegiance to the constitution can itself provide some source of tension independent of any substantive policy disagreements. (We saw, for example, that a court composed of largely Republican appointees was nevertheless able to restrain some of former President Trump’s more extreme excesses.)

But when many of our political disagreements are precisely over the interpretation of that founding document and the degree to which it constrains legislative, executive, and judicial bodies, it’s not hard to see that a legislature which shares the political goals of an executive which shares in turn the political goals of a judiciary might be less likely to “check” one another than they might be in the presence of more disagreement. 

This brings me to the respect in which the politics of the moment make me nervous. 

Along with a Democratic executive, we have a House of Representatives with a sizable Democratic majority and a democratically controlled Senate. The latter has an increasing capacity  to pass legislation with no Republican support.

Currently, the largely Republican appointed judiciary is the only source of robust “opposition” in the sense sketched above. In normal circumstances, it might be enough. And yet, there are increasingly loud calls for congress to “pack the court” as a means of sanctioning recent republican opportunism. If these calls are heeded,  the court would lurch leftward as well. 

Naturally, even in the event of a packed court, recourse would remain to the less formal civil society checks on majority excess the founders thought so important. But many of the most prestigious media outlets exhibit a bias friendly to the Democratic Party. So too with social media platform executives. And the leftward tilt of most colleges and universities indicates that they are only inadequately positioned to provide an appropriate counterweight. Commercial interests, long opponents of progressive economic policies, are coming around on many of them.  To make matters worse, the broader population, still reeling from the pandemic, is more welcoming of government action than usual, creating a kind of popular authorization for some fairly radical changes to economic policy

It isn’t, then, merely that we have a government increasingly in the control of persons with a predominantly progressive vision. We have a civil society, the major aspects of which also share that vision. 

Moreover, things aren’t likely to improve in this dimension, at least not in the medium term. The republican party platform (to the extent that there is one) is massively unpopular among young voters. Its flirtation with xenophobia will make it unpopular with immigrant voters. It has long lost favor with racial minorities and women. Thus unless the Democratic Party fractures along the fault lines it is clearly showing (or the GOP recovers some sense of itself), I imagine that we’ll see a sustained period of single-party dominance in each branch of government. Absent a cultural shift that seems as unlikely as it might be undesirable, our civil society will continue to lean heavily in a progressive direction.

Some might hasten to say that the GOP itself bears the primary responsibility for all of this. And they’d be (at least partially) right. The party has ceased being a principled proponent of limited government. It has become increasingly willing to wield its power to arbitrarily punish commercial actors that it dislikes (even when this is anathema to its stated commitments). We witnessed this in Trump’s lashing out at big tech firms and abuse of executive orders, and we’re seeing it now, as major GOP actors opportunistically threaten the MLB with sanctions for its recent opposition to Republican legislation.

But though the Republican Party may bear primary responsibility for the state of affairs that has me worried, it would be shortsighted to celebrate its (perhaps deserved) decline—at least so far as one is moved by the Millian reasons rehearsed above.

Montesquieu famously wrote that “every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.” The above reflections suggest that democrats have a substantial mandate for exercising their own newly won authority. And yet one does not have to be as pessimistic as Montesquieu was to worry that the accountability mechanisms of the current climate leave something to be desired. 

Those yearning for an end to gridlock may, in short order, have their wish. For those of us who appreciated the virtues of slowed political action, little is left but to hope that we are every bit as paranoid as we sometimes seem to our critics. The well-being of the nation depends on it.