The Battle Lines of Democracy

The beginning of our problems as voters is that we are engaged in an epic democratic battle that arises inevitably from the nature of democracy itself, yet we fail to understand – at least in the ways that matter most – exactly whom we are battling and what we are battling them over. It’s as if we were boxing The Invisible Man: we feel the punches sure enough, but we can’t really get a bead on just where they’re coming from. Worse yet, of coursewe want to hit back, but how do we find our mark? However angry we become, however hard we swing, we keep missing this unseen attacker while he throttles us ever harder. The result is both simple and predictable: We The People are slowly but surely getting ourselves pointed to death. We lose 10-8 this round and 10-9 that, becoming more and more vulnerable to the knock-out punch with each ring of the elections bell. 

It sounds rather dreadful when put this way, and doubtless it would be if we could find no good way to crack this particular nut. But the opponent’s great strength is his invisibility, and all that is needed for the tide to begin to turn is to make him invisible no more. The most critical step in achieving this goal is to realize the simple yet critical fact that there are really only two starring actors on any democracy’s stage: eligible voters and incumbent politicians. All other roles are minor in comparison, and understanding the battle we are in demands for now we factor every one of them out and focus on voters and incumbents alone.

Because nearly everything to be said from this point on depends in some way on a clear understanding of this voter-incumbent relationship, it only makes sense to develop the point thoroughly now. As effective a way as any to begin the explanation is by positing the two following democratic societies, each with only three known characteristics.

A thought experiment: go back 100 years to 1916 America. you will be sent to 2016 America, and you get two choices – America A or America B.

Society A’s three known characteristics are these:

  1. There is a very tight link between a) the voter approval ratings of the legislatures (local, state and federal, let’s say), and b) the reelection rates of the legislative incumbents. 

To put some numbers on this, let’s say the incumbent reelection rate tends to be about 30 points higher than the legislature’s approval rating. A 60% approval rating, therefore, would result in about 90% of the incumbents getting reelected, whereas with 20% approval only about half would manage to survive.

  • The legislatures’ voter approval ratings are normally in the range of 30% to 60%, so reelection is normally from 60-90%.
  • There are very low barriers to entry for anyone wishing to run on a substantially level playing field for political office, resulting in highly competitive elections and a steady stream of “new blood” coursing through all of government.

Society B’s known traits are quite the opposite:

  1. There is virtually no link between the legislatures’ voter approval ratings and the reelection rates of the legislators. No matter the approval rating, the legislators almost always get reelected at rates of 95% or higher, and never lower than 90%.
  2. The legislatures’ voter approval ratings are normally in the range of 10% to 30%.
  3. The barriers to entry to a run for political office are extremely high, resulting in highly uncompetitive elections in the vast majority of legislative seats and precious little new blood ever entering the sclerotic arteries of government.

Having only these three facts regarding each of these two societies, we can be all but certain the following is true: in Society A, the voters have effectively broken the politicians; in Society B, the politicians have effectively broken the voters.

Far and away more than any other factor or set of factors, this is what the success or failure of self-government inescapably comes down to: either the politicians do the bidding of the voters, and real democracy lives; or the voters do the bidding of the politicians, and real democracy dies.

—a democracy is no stronger than is its democratic link

—It matters not what the causes of the voters losing control is…

—if low approval rating means incumbents need higher victory margin…

—when pols control voters / are insulated from voter anger, they govern against the voters, for tyranny and for the end of democracy…

For present purposes, the terms voters and incumbents may each be understood in what I will refer to as an individual sense and a monolithic sense. The latter usage will be the default throughout, but you should have no difficulty recognizing when the former is employed instead.

Voters and incumbents in the individual sense are what most of us think of when we think of either. In this the common and traditional view, they are simply the real-life human beings in any given democracy at any given time whose individual characters, desires, motives and opinions vary greatly, depending on any number of factors. The key feature of this particular view is that, on any given issue, there will be some voters and some incumbents who line up together on one basic side while other voters and incumbents line up on other sides. In this individual sense, therefore, all political groups, coalitions or parties consist of a mixture of voters and incumbents.

Voters and incumbents in the monolithicsense, however, are meant to be understood very differently. In this sense of the terms, all that matters about each group is the net effect of its individuals’ collective actions. Once we see the voters as a single, solid monolith and the politicians as another, it becomes clear the two cannotdivide themselves up to form groups or coalitions with the other. Instead, they are the more or less equal and opposite halves of the structure of power that attempts to keep democracies stable and properly functioning. 

Although these structures of power generally have an unelected[1]judicial component that also plays a stabilizing role, the active roles are played by voters and incumbents. They are like the two opposing teams on a football field, whereas unelected judges are more like the referees. Either way–with the unelected judges or without – the most consequential head-to-head action in this view of democracy is not between different parties, ideologies or coalitions. Rather, it is between voters and incumbents alone, with the voters as a monolithon one side of a democratic system slugging it out with the incumbents as a monolith on the other. Going forward, therefore, whenever it is said that “the voters do this” or “the incumbents do that,” it is not at all meantthat one hundred percent of the individual voters or incumbents are doing it, but that this is what the whole of the voters’ or the incumbents’ actions add up to.

Key to everything is that each monolith constitutes a distinct interest group (or class orinstitution if you prefer) with very specific roles to play in the drama that is democracy. Chief among these roles is to push back against the other to keep it in check, thereby allowing the democratic political system to function essentially according to design, for better and for worse. Whatever the two sides require in order to play these balance of power roles effectively may logically be thought of as their balance of power interests, or simply their interests. If each side is generally successful in protecting these interests, and if the system’s basic design is devoid of catastrophic defects, then the voters are free to govern themselves as well or poorly as their collective civic wisdom will allow.

If, on the other hand, one side fails to protect its interests and a meaningful imbalance of power occurs, the democratic system will no longer operate as designed. As such, the voters will be handicapped in ways that make it far more difficult for them to succeed in governing themselves well.Even competent electorates will then tend to produce corrupt, incompetent government, and this will be so regardless of other factors, including for the most part the partisan political balance of power. Over time, the social, political and economic failures produced by such government will make the blame game king and sow division among the people. In its turn, this division will favor the eventual development of a political version of civil war and the catch-22 of a paralyzed or otherwise fundamentally dysfunctional democratic political system. After a long enough time finding no way forward through conventional, change-at-the-margin democracy, frustrated citizens begin seeking saviors, and all bets are effectively off.

Whenever a system relies on two forces to push back against and balance each other, the relationship between them is necessarily antagonistic. No matter what else is taking place in any democracy, this antagonistic relationship between voters and incumbents is inherent in the basic design and therefore never-changing and never-ending. To help illustrate the point, if you take yourself mentally to some imaginary world where no modern technology nor political parties yet exist, and if you then set up a democracy in some human society there, the fundamental, balance-of-power battle between voters and incumbents there and then in that primitive democracy will be exactly what it is here and now in our advanced one. None of this is to say in any way that political parties or the media or whatever institution or issue you care to name matters not to the health of a democratic system. Rather, it is that what matters infinitely more is whether in this never ending battle between voters and incumbents, the voter class is perpetually getting creamed by the incumbent class – or not.

Voters and incumbent politicians are the only two parties in representative democracy with permanent, sufficient, legal power to thwart the most basic objectives of the other. They alone compete daily and directly to bend the other to their will, so naturally it is between them where democracy’s most meaningful action takes place. Who but the voters, after all, may legally and at will remove incumbents from power, en masse if so desired? Who but incumbents may legally govern these very same voters to ruin? Can Big Business do these things – legally, at will, at all times? Can the media? The universities? The political parties? As for the administrative state and unelected judges and the like, who creates them if not incumbents, and who but the voters can fire these incumbents if they are displeased with these creations?

The mano a mano that matters most in democracy is not between Political Party A and Political Party B. It is between voters and incumbents. Period. Likewise, that invisible man assailing the voters is none other than the incumbents. Period. Democratic incumbents. Republican incumbents. All incumbents.[2]Now let us examine why.

[1]Elected judges are understood here to be incumbent politicians like any other elected official.

[2]  Collectively, of course.

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