Constitution Daily

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Is economic turmoil creating a "democracy gap"?

December 5, 2011 by Todd Brewster


It is hardly news that the Eurozone -- the European Union’s cross-national monetary system – is in disrepair. But consider a richer question, one with global implications: is democracy itself in trouble?

Within a span of a few weeks, Italy has replaced its prime minister with a Harvard-trained economics professor. Greece has replaced its prime minister with another economist, called from his stint as a visiting professor, also at Harvard. Neither of these men is a politician. Both were appointed to their new positions, not elected (to make him eligible to form a new government, Mario Monti, the new Italian prime minister, was simply named a “senator for life” by the country’s president) and yet they are being entrusted with bringing the kind of severe austerity measures necessary to rescue their nation’s respective economies, measures, it is presumed, that no ordinary politician would dare initiate. The clear, underlying message is that politicians elected by the people cannot be trusted with making unpopular decisions; when things get this rough we need to suspend the popular will because austerity is not something any sane person would vote for. 

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Monti said as much this past week. Confronted by a reporter who wanted him to explain why he had demurred from meeting with union leaders before assembling the country’s new economic plan, he asserted that the “extraordinarily delicate situation” in Italy now makes it impossible to enjoy “certain rituals” that “might be welcome by everyone, but perhaps aren’t advantageous to the country.” Monti then acknowledged that he would indeed sit down with labor leaders – not to negotiate with them, but “with a goal of illustrating the guiding principles of the measures that will be adopted by the Cabinet.” In other words, I will tell you what is good for you and you will accept it.  

The subject of mixed allegiances and of a “democracy gap” is all over Europe these days as the continent works out the issues created by a single currency shared among 17 countries, each with its own fiscal policy, but Americans have no right to be smug in our reaction to it all.  Yes, it is true, we would never tolerate a uniform currency for North America – the Amero! – or, for that matter, a government run by an unelected professor, appointed for “life,” telling us what is good for us.  But as we struggle through our own economic crisis, dangerous cross-allegiances and “democracy gaps” are emerging in our political system as well.

We, too, are facing austerity measures – be they spending cuts or higher taxes -- that are deemed to be equally unpopular with the American public (though recent polling contradicts that), and while Congress did not anoint an economist with the power to administer the tough medicine and endure the national ire, it did do a legislative punt on the budget decision by giving extraordinary power to the now infamous "supercommittee" of six Republicans and six Democrats, with the rest of the Congress bound to a simple up or down vote on the committee’s resolution – no amendments, no legislative construction, and no faithfulness to longstanding Congressional rules, like the filibuster, just the overhanging threat that in the absence of an agreement, automatic cuts would be administered. In a sense, the committee was to be a Super Congress with its twelve select members enjoying – well, given their task, maybe “enjoying” is not the word – power beyond their constitutional mandate.

This legislative sleight of hand now affords members of Congress with an extraordinary opportunity to place blame for painful cuts on someone else – a committee that failed, an intransigent political system – rather than themselves. But the awkward democratic dynamic is even richer. By now we all know that all six Republicans on the committee “took the pledge” – that is, they signed on to Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) oath not to raise taxes, meaning that they had a pre-commitment binding them before they even entered the room, a commitment that effectively neutered their power to “legislate” given that a pledge to a lobbying group (while enjoying extraordinary power in Republican circles, ATR is really nothing more than that) stood in their way. 

Norquist would no doubt point out that the pledge is not to his group, but to the “taxpayers” of the district or state that he or she represents, but that would be splitting hairs. It is the ATR that has forced this pledge, and it has inspired others: the "Susan B. Anthony Pledge," committing to anti-abortion measures; the “Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge" to promote a balanced budget constitutional amendment; and -- where will it all end? -- the "Marriage Vow Pledge" which commits the signer to opposing same-sex marriage, to a faithful relationship with his or her own spouse, and – even more bizarrely – to reject Shariah law.

No doubt Europe and the U.S. both need the kind of fiscal discipline that may -- may -- finally be emerging, however reluctantly, in this herky-jerky fashion. But there is a dark omen in the conclusion that the traditional democratic process cannot be depended upon to yield the necessary results in either place, on the belief that when push comes to shove the great body politic will not act in its own better interests. Look out: the world has a long and sad history of governments rejecting democracy “for the peoples’ own good.”

Todd Brewster is the Director of the National Constitution Center's Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.

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